Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Yoyo Masters of Northampton, Massachusetts
by David Gilfix

Photographs by Elliot Gilfix

When historians and media experts talk about Massachusetts, they usually refer to its roots in American liberty, its brain trust in academia, medicine, and high tech, and its legacy of successful professional sports teams.  Yet few people are aware that Massachusetts, and more specifically Northampton, Massachusetts, can also be credited for helping to modernize and popularize what some of us took for granted in our childhood as merely a child’s sport – yo-yoing.   Today more than ever, this is not your father’s yoyo

Jack Finn, André Boulay, Eric Kolaski and Tylor McCallumore
Daniel Dietz was in 6th grade in 2004 when he took a yoyo class at the A2Z Science and Learning store in Northampton.  He was lucky to live so close.  Serious yoyo schools are unusual; there are less than 10 in the United States.  Serious yo-yoers are more common; they practice incessantly, and show up by the thousands at yoyo contests and yoyo conventions where they learn, share, and compete.
Dietz became a serious yo-yoer.  “I never played an instrument, but the yoyo became my creative outlet, especially when I discovered early on that I could make up my own tricks.” It helped that there was a yoyo craze in the Hilltown Cooperative Charter School that he attended.  As Daniel put it, “every kid and their brother had a yoyo.”  Many other students also took lessons at the A2Z School.
Dietz learned quickly.  In 2006, less than two years after taking his first yoyo class, he entered the World Yoyo competitions in Orlando Florida and came in first in his age group.  In 2009, he became the Massachusetts yoyo champion and then placed 4th in the overall World Yoyo championship.
Dietz has become an extraordinary yo-yoer.  Amazingly, there are many other extraordinary yo-yoers who came out of the A2Z school.  Daniel’s teacher, André Boulay, won the regional yoyo championship and placed 5th in the National competition in 2003.  Like Dietz, Boulay learned at the A2Z School and quickly became hooked.  “I was 15 when I started, and pretty soon I was practicing everywhere, at school recesses, grocery stores, even on the bus.”  
Boulay, like Dietz, had discovered that top level yo-yoing was a form of personal expression that required the same commitment to excellence as learning an instrument or a sport.   Artistry at this level goes well beyond the usual ‘walk the dog’ and ‘around the world’ tricks that many of us learned as kids. High-level yo-yoers throw or spin their yoyos in, out, or through a succession of complex geometrical shapes and patterns that they create with the string to which the yoyo is fastened.  They move from one shape to another, swinging the yoyo sometimes at almost blinding speeds, while other times sleeping the yoyo (spinning on its own axel) motionlessly before moving to the next pattern.  It is an activity that requires gymnastic precision and jazz drummer timing; it is part performance art and part sport.   

 “Generally speaking, the good players are very fast and smooth and do technically difficult tricks and are very innovative,” Boulay explains.  “There’s a lot of self-expression.  Two players can make the same trick look completely different.”

Nick Gumlaw was another one of Daniel Dietz’s teachers who discovered yo-yoing at the A2Z store.  “They had these weekly game nights, and a yoyo class was going on before that.  I had never seen anything like the kind of yo-yoing that they were teaching, and it looked really interesting. ” Gumlaw was 12.  By age 14, he was taking three classes a week and yo-yoing four hours per day.  At 16, he placed third in the World Yoyo Competition for his age group.  Like Dietz and Boulay, Gumlaw went on to teach at the A2Z School.  Today, at age 24, he is a judge at yoyo competitions worldwide and still teaches at the A2Z School.  Moreover, Gumlaw has created his own yoyo company, Spin Dynamics, which designs professional quality yoyos such as one that can “sleep” (spin) for eight minutes while moving at 10,000 RPMs.  The Smooth Move yoyo costs around $100, a price that is now considered reasonable for professional quality yoyos.

Nick Gumlaw demonstrates his "Smooth Move" yoyo that spins at 10,000 RPMs
(yes, it is moving very fast) 
Developing a Culture
The common link among all the master yoyo players in Northampton is Jack Finn, owner of the A2Z store, head of the Northampton yoyo school, and almost every yoyo fanatic’s first teacher.  In 1997, as part of a promotion campaign, the Yomega yoyo company began offering classes at the A2Z store as well as several other places across the country.  “Everyone started learning together,” Jack explained.  “Eventually the Yomega classes ended but we just continued holding them on our own while the other places dropped out.”
Dropping out might have been the sounder business decision; even today, less than 5 percent of retail sales come from yo-yoing, according to Finn.  Nevertheless, it was never about business.  “Jack was the driving force behind the yoyo scene in Northampton,” Daniel Dietz explained.  “It’s impossible to imagine the yoyo scene at all without Jack.” 

Jack Finn outside the A2Z store
Master yo-yoer, Eric Kolaski, explained how Jack taught him basics from yoyo maintenance to beginning tricks.  Like Daniel Dietz, Kolaski remembers enrolling in the A2Z School during a “huge yoyo fad” in his East Hampton elementary school, back in first grade.  To keep kids motivated, Jack would offer incentives for passing different proficiency levels.  “You passed level one and you would get a free packet of strings, you passed level three and you would get a free t-shirt, and so on.”  Kolaski mastered his lessons well.  In 2005 at age 14, Kolaski won the Massachusetts state yoyo championships.  He went on to win the regional championships several times, and then in 2008, Eric became the United States National Yoyo Champion in the “1A” division (the main event). 
André Boulay explained how the Northampton scene intersected with the major changes in the yoyo world.  “When I got into yo-yoing back in the 90s, it was going through some crazy shifts; people were accepting the ball bearing yoyos.” The ball-bearing transaxle design revolutionized the art by allowing players to spin their yoyos much longer than the traditional axel yoyos.  This provided players the time to do increasingly complex and creative tricks.  “Here in Northampton, there were four kids who made up a group of tricks that everyone seems to do today.”  The four players, Nate Sutter, Jordan Cooper, Alex Lozyniak, and Nate Auger, were all connected to the A2Z School.  “The four of them put out videos around the year 2000 to 2001.  A2Z grew into a club of tricks.  There were a few other places doing this around the country, such as a group in California.  But the A2Z players were one of the groups that had a big impact on the sport.”
The impact was felt both in areas of creativity and competition.  Some of the other major players connected with the Northampton school include Bret Outchunis, now chief demonstrator of Yomega yoyos, former artistic world champion Mark Montgomery, and respected competitors David Almandzar and Sean Fumo. According to Jack Finn, almost every state and regional champion has been connected to A2Z since 2003.
Northampton has become the Silicon Valley of the yoyo world, perhaps because the Yoyo School has inspired a yoyo culture of sharing and learning together.  The monthly free, “Dogbite” social gatherings attract novice to expert yo-yoers ranging from elementary school age to senior adulthood.  At a recent Dogbite event, I observed championship yo-yoers like Eric Kolaski and André Boulay spending time with beginner yo-yoers to show them the ropes (or rather “strings”) of different yoyo concepts.   The atmosphere was relaxed and fun.  Refreshments were served, people chatted, and joked.   “The social aspect of yo-yoing is what most people don’t understand,” Nick Gumlaw explains.  “It’s the community sense of it.  You can have a friend who is 10 or 45, find common ground, and learn from each other.”
From Anchorage to Northampton
John Higby’s long distance journey to the Northampton community began, at age 11, in his hometown of Anchorage, Alaska.  John’s grandfather gave him a classic Dunkin butterfly yoyo, and taught him basic tricks.  Intrigued, John sent away for the Dunkin yoyo company’s trick book and learned all 21 tricks.  He was hooked and soon bought a newly invented Silver Bullet ball bearing yoyo, which could spin much longer than the traditional axle yoyo, along with another trick book called the Flight Manual.   John learned those tricks, too.  In fact, he learned them so well that four years later, in 1996, he tried out and was selected to perform for US servicemen stationed in the Mediterranean, in a Department of Defense tour.  
In 2008, Higby won the World Championship in the artistic division.  His winning routine was a “street show,” complete with a cardboard subway stop.  Higby would step behind the cardboard and pantomime going down an escalator into the subway.  Each time he came back up, Higby carried a different yoyo and performed different tricks. 

I saw Higby perform at the public library in Acton, Massachusetts.  His routine mixed dazzling yoyo tricks with comedy.  People were laughing one minute and “wow”-ing in amazement the next.  In one routine, Higby attempted to nock a quarter off of the ear of a nervous volunteer – who of course had no idea for what he was volunteering.   Higby first reassures his volunteer with several comments that are none too comforting – but sure were funny.  Then he stands at a considerable distance – swinging around a yoyo with an extra-long string.  Finally, Higby throws the yoyo and, after a few false starts, nocks off the quarter with surgical accuracy.
Today, Higby lives in Northampton, performs yoyo all over the world, attends the monthly Dogbite socials, and directs the A2Z yoyo team in its annual First Night, New Years performance.  This year, the performance was held at Northampton’s Academy of Music in an 800-seat theater.  Higby says that “Northampton’s yoyo culture is unique,” and that “Jack Finn is central to everything going on there.” 
Giving Back and Moving On
If the culture is unique, perhaps this is due to the character of the yoyo masters, themselves, who seem uniquely committed to giving back to the community:
Daniel Dietz, as a mitzvah (good deed) project for his bar mitzvah, chose to donate money through his yoyo performances to the Smile Train, an organization that provides surgery and care around the world for children with cleft lips and cleft palates.  Dietz kept going long after his bar mitzvah.  Today, at age 18, Dietz has personally raised almost $40,000 for the Smile Train, which, at $250 per surgery, has financed life-improving operations for 160 children.  Dietz still competes at world championships and believes that he not yet reached his full potential.  And he still teaches at the A2Z School.
André Boulay no longer teaches at the A2Z School though he remains highly connected to the community and attends the monthly Dogbite gatherings.  Today, Boulay judges at major competitions and teaches to a world community through the video tutorials on his Yoyo Expert website, which attracts over 150,000 hits per month.  This site, according to world champion John Higby, provides huge benefits to yoyo-ers worldwide (especially those not lucky enough to live near a community like Northampton) with information and video tutorials.  “André deserves credit for getting so many people into it,” Higby explains. 
Master yoyo performer and teacher Andre´ Boulay
Boulay is clearly passionate about his ventures.  “My constant goal,” he says, “has been to re-introduce people to the art of yo-yoing.  Most people have no idea what it is really about.  But no matter how old or young you are you can learn it.”

National Champion, Eric Kolaski, teaches at the A2Z School and has discovered that his yoyo skills can help inspire and motivate people.   One especially memorable episode came out of a series of unplanned events.  In the summer of 2009, talent scouts from the television show, America’s Got Talent, discovered YouTube videos of Eric performing in competition and invited him to tryout for the show in New York.  Eric passed the try-outs and appeared on national television (and met Howie Mandel and Sharon Osborne along the way).   

A pastor in Georgia saw the show and invited Eric to perform during a church service.  As Eric recalls, the sermon was about achieving excellence through persistence and practice.  At the conclusion, a video of Eric appeared on a large screen for the 3000-member congregation.  When the minister asked whether people would like to see Eric in person, Eric made his appearance, and performed a 2-minute yoyo routine.  “The congregation loved it,” Eric said, and several truly inspired members asked him how he had developed his talents.
National Champion Eric Kolaski

World champion, John Higby, who directed the A2Z Yoyo Team in their annual First Night performances, no longer competes but is active as both a performing yoyo artist and as a visual artist where, not surprisingly, the yoyo is a dominant theme.  Using typing paper and mechanical pencils, John has created Mr. Yodel, a yo-yoing comic book character.   He has also drawn yoyo-themed portraits, created designs on the inside of yoyos, and published illustrations in children’s books.  As a yoyo master, John has performed in 26 countries at company banquets, arts festivals, street fairs, cruise ships, and even at Disney world. 
John also has set two Guinness world records.  In Spain, using a yoyo with an extra long string, John knocked off 15 coins from the ears of 15 participants in one minute and fifty seconds.  Maybe the volunteer at the Acton library would have been more relaxed if he knew that Higby was the record holder in this event!  However, that kind of accuracy pales in comparison to his second world record.  In August 2011, in Beijing, China, Higby lit 14 matches (held by 14 different participants) with a yoyo in 60 seconds.   
Love of Yo-yoing
Yo-yoing is one of the oldest arts/sports/recreations in the world.  According to different sources, the yoyo was invented either in China, the Philippines, or Greece, between 500 and 1000 BCE.  In the 18th century, the yoyo came to Europe, probably via India to Britain and France, where it was especially popular among nobility.  It arrived in the US in the 1860s and was referred to by its then British name, the “bandalore.” In the 1920s, Pedro Flores, a Filipino immigrant to the US manufactured a toy similar to the bandalore and called it the “yoyo,” which, in Tagalog, means “come back.”  Nine years later, Donald Duncan bought the company from Flores and trademarked the “yoyo” name.
Today, yoyo players from twenty-one countries in five continents are represented in the world yoyo championships, in Orlando, Florida.  The strongest team usually comes from Japan, where yo-yoing is most popular.  However, top players come from most countries, including China, Singapore, Canada, England, and of course the United States.  Here in the United States you can find other thriving yo-yoing communities in Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, Wilmington Delaware Chico, California, home of the national championships, and Orlando, Florida, home of the world yoyo contests.
An activity cannot remain popular for 3000 years without appealing to people in different ways and on different levels.  In my discussions, yoyo aficionados from beginning to master level players passionately discussed their addiction.
“I always need something to do and could never just sit,” explained Eric Kolaski.  “I like how I could carry the yoyo with me wherever I go.”  
Size and portability are definitely part of the attraction.  John Higby explained how he would practice his yoyo during “all those moment when you are waiting in line.”  He added that the yoyo was a great “ice breaker” for meeting people, especially in countries where he didn’t speak the language.
For André Boulay, the yoyo provides “this amazing feeling when you figure out a new trick.  And there is gratification along the way.”
“What draws me is that it is relaxing, and a way to narrow my focus.  And I can take it with me anywhere,” said Nick Gumlaw.  “If you have a chance to see someone perform on the yoyo it would definitely be worth your time, because it is nothing like what most people would expect.”
Jack Finn describes yo-yoing as an art that allows for “a lot of self expression … each person can take it in his own direction.”
And so it goes.  As befitting one of the world’s oldest toys, different people are attracted for different reasons:  creativity, individuality, social “ice breaker,” sport, and form of relaxation.  In the classic baseball movie, Field of Dreams, an Iowa corn farmer makes his own baseball field after hearing a voice tell him, “If you build it, they will come.”  Jack Finn built a yoyo school in Northampton, and people came.     

Related Links:  
Yoyo expert.com (to learn yoyo skills from André Boulay)
Spin Dynamics yoyos (Nick Gumlaw's professional yoyos)
The A2Z Science and Learning Store 

Photos by Elliot Gilfix 
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Ricky said...

Nice story, David!

And as a Noho resident I can confirm that yoyo day at A2Z is indeed quite a scene.

Musing Wolf said...

Interesting posting, David. I could not stop reading until the end!

Bonnie said...

Fun story! Never knew this was in our "backyard". If you likes yoyos and tops, you must visit the only yoyo museum I've ever hear of:


It's in Burlington, Wisconsin, outside of Chicago. But if you have a strong desire to see yoyos (compared to tops), call ahead. She has SOOOOO much stuff, she can only display one of these per day. But she can turn the museum around to the other in a few hours. We got to see tops and I will never forget the experience. The woman who runs this is also quite a character.

AgnosticCynic said...

Wow. Who knew? When I was a kid, I considered it an accomplishment when I could get the yoyo to go straight up and down more than 3 times without ending up in a knot. A nice, refreshing article, Mr. Gilfix.

Hannan Aslam said...

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