Bags of Tricks – Exploring Move Discovery in Skill Play
Coming up with something you haven’t seen done before can be one of the most rewarding aspects of skill play. This article covers a wide variety of exercises and techniques that can potentially be used to help people come up with new moves. The image above is a clickable index so that you can dip in and out of it without necessarily having to read the whole thing in one go.
Firstly I’m using “skill play” to describe an activity that generally involves another object (or objects) and focuses on the relationship between our bodies and that object. Through practice different movements are learnt that allow us to interact with the object in different ways. My background is in circus and object manipulation but these ideas apply equally to related arts such as skateboarding, magic or any other physical skill-based creative activity. Sometimes I’ll use specific terms that might not apply to your type of skill-play but hopefully you’ll be able to adapt it.
Now when I say new moves I mean new with respect to the person doing them. I don’t personally believe that someone can claim that they’ve solely invented a completely new move. I think people discover what’s already there. We’re all playing with the same toys and they lend themselves to certain movements and certain types of movement. Also we are all standing on each other’s shoulders and the shoulders of the people that have come before us. I believe it’s generally impractical and unhelpful to try to say who did something first. It becomes about ego rather than about the art. However, it is hugely satisfying to come up with a move that you haven’t learnt from someone else.
So let’s start with some general tips:
Try – Everything should be tried. No idea is too ridiculous. Don’t get bogged down in whether or not you think it will look good at some point. Some of the best ideas look ridiculous to start with but feel good. Often they end up looking good after lots of practice but the feeling good is to my mind the important part. A major part of creativity is trying to be in an entirely uninhibited non-judgemental state. Some moves will feel better than others and they are the ones you’re likely to keep practising.
Record – It’s worth always having a notebook on you that you use to record ideas in when you’re practising or just living your life. Ideas can strike at any time and it’s easy to forget things. Also a move you have come up with then decided it wasn’t good/useful can sometimes become good/useful at a later point. It is also worthwhile filming yourself playing to get another perspective on things and to see how you change over time.
Share – Generally I find that when I show people a move I usually get a whole bunch of new material back, whether this comes directly from them, or just from the experience of breaking down the move to teach it. Some people try and hoard moves and claim them for their own – but this generally isn’t how skill play works. The moves you start with have almost certainly been learnt from others so it makes sense to continue the cycle.
Believe – Sounds a bit hippy-ish I admit but it’s true. One of the first steps towards being creative is believing you have the capacity to be creative. If you believe you can accomplish pretty much anything if you try hard enough then chances are you probably can. But on the flip-side don’t force creativity. The ideal state we’re trying to achieve here is self-belief with a slight detachment from the outcome. I believe I can do it but my life and happiness are not dependent upon it.
Obsess – Skill-based play is a great and possibly even a vaguely healthy outlet for obsession. Never accept defeat. Struggle often makes success more satisfying. The longer you play with a prop the more familiar you will become with it allowing for greater depth of movement. Enjoy the journey, don’t get overly stressed about the destination, chose your own path and never decide to turn back.
So without further ado here are the five main ways I come up with new moves:
Unstructured Play – by randomly chancing upon new moves
Making Mistakes – by watching what happens when things go wrong
Structured Play – by purposefully trying to find new moves
Visualisation – by imaging moves and finding that they actually work
External Inspiration – by watching other people and other disciplines
Just like skill play itself many of these techniques will require practice before they bear fruit and of course it’s probable that not all of them will work for you. But some probably will if you put the time in. I believe everyone in the right conditions can be creative – it’s just a skill that has to be learnt. It requires patience and passion. I find myself far more creative with some props then others. It’s worth the time and effort to find the right prop. When I discover a new move that feels really right it gives me a massive rush that makes all the work worthwhile. Let’s look at each of these five techniques individually.
To my mind the best way to embrace creativity is through fun, unstructured, confident, non-judgemental, childlike, unadulterated play. The most common way I come up with new moves is when I’m just playing around in a relaxed fashion. Generally I’m most creative when I’m not specifically trying to be. This section is going to discuss a number of things that might help you to be more creative in your free play sessions.
As a child you almost certainly played with toys (and as a child a toy is anything you can find). When children play with toys they do it for the sake of playing. They do it for fun and don’t judge what it is they are doing – they just let it happen. This is the state we are trying to relearn and a number of the techniques throughout this article are designed to help “get you out of your head” and revert you to a more basic state where you just play for the sake of playing.
It is important to understand that you shouldn’t be afraid to drop, hit yourself and generally look a little silly during play. Learning generally involves quite a lot of looking a little silly which is a process one must go through before one starts to look really rather good.
Music can be an incredibly powerful tool for creativity. I find that listening to loud music that I’m familiar with and music that evokes a strong emotional response can put me in a very creative frame of mind. Listening to it loudly through headphones can help me “zone out” and come up with new moves. I find this effect more intense through headphones because the sound seems to envelope me more and block out outside stimulus. It’s important that the cable doesn’t get in the way so I use wireless headphones.
As well as listening to music you’re familiar with it can be useful to play to unfamiliar music. Play to as many different types of music as possible. Different tempos and styles might help you to move differently. Try and be influenced by the music and let it tell you what to do.
There is a technique called 5Rhythms where people dance through the following styles in sequence over a period of time: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. Each of these styles has it’s own characteristics and songs are chosen to accentuate them. Moving through a variety of styles like this where you start quite slow, increase the tempo, peak, and then slow down again can be an interesting way to structure a play session.
Exercise: Trying playing to at least five completely different styles of music.
Playing on top of a beautiful mountain might make you play differently to when you’re in a slightly cramped room. Sights, sounds and smells are strong tools for effecting your state of mind and thus how you play. I spend a lot of my time playing indoors and it always surprises me how differently I play if I go somewhere pretty and sunny.
Different weather conditions can make things interesting. Wind can make the trajectories of objects slightly less predictable, rain makes things slipperier, bright sunlight can make it hardier to see upwards. All these things and more can be fun to play with.
Exercise: Play somewhere epic.
It can sometimes help to play with different versions of the same toy. This might include different sizes, weights, materials or quantities of the prop. Changing these things can effect what is possible with the prop as well as what is easy or hard.
Exercise: Make or acquire two different versions of your prop that move/act in different ways (bigger, smaller, heavier, etc.).
While sensory deprivation tanks are fun to try and might help with visualising moves they are seldom big enough to allow one to spin in. However, there is a much more practical form of sensory deprivation that might be useful while playing.
Blindfolds have a long history of being used in martial arts and meditation and can help us to turn our focus inwards. Try playing while blindfolded and see if this helps you to move differently. Obviously if you are doing something dangerous or playing near something dangerous than this is unwise. Be wary of those around you. If you are uncomfortable wearing a blindfold you can just close your eyes but I don’t find this to have quite such a strong effect. A slightly different version of this uses half ping pong balls to cover the eyes (see Gansfeld Effect).
Exercise: Spend fifteen minutes playing blindfolded.
Mental and physical states can have a huge impact on how we play.
Going for a half an hour jog then sprint before playing can put your brain in a slightly different chemical state than it might normally be in. So can staying up all night or missing a few meals. All these things and more can slightly alter your chemical state. It can be worth experimenting with diet, sleep patterns and exercise to see how this effects your play sessions. Try playing straight after you’ve woken up and comparing that to just before going to sleep. Generally large meals make me lethargic and are unhelpful before a play session. Fat and sugar in food can effect my mood and energy levels. Sometimes it can take a while to get “warmed up” while playing, but going for a half hour jog can warm you up and might give a few endorphins to help your play session. If jogging isn’t your thing you could put on some fast music and dance hard for twenty minutes or so.
Exercise: Go for a fifteen minute to half an hour jog ending in a sprint (or the best your fitness level will allow) before playing.
Now I should say two things at this point. Firstly here I’m only discussing legal chemicals. What you chose to do or not do with less legal chemicals is your business. But legal chemicals can have a surprisingly strong affect on your brain. Secondly the long-term health repercussions of any of these chemicals legal or otherwise are entirely your responsibility not mine. I’m not advising taking anything this is just a theoretical discussion. Some things that could theoretically be interesting in strong doses are caffeine, sugar, chilli and menthol. Sudafed, Mucuna Puriens and Galantamine are available in over the counter medications or supplement form. Alcohol and nicotine are available in many countries when you reach a certain age. All these things and many others could potentially negatively impact your health. They can also theoretically temporarily change the way you play which might help you to come up with new moves.
I’m going to avoid comment on less legal chemicals apart from this: it is important to note that taking drugs doesn’t necessarily make you more creative. I know lots of people who take drugs and lounge around doing nowt. Just because Bob Marley probably wrote a few songs while he was stoned doesn’t mean you getting all high and sitting around scratching your balls* or spinning like a drugged up muppet will make you some sort of revered artist or creative genius. Just saying.
* by which I mean dropping acrylics which are a type of clear plastic ball used in contact juggling.
Exercise: Try playing first thing in the morning after not eating anything and drinking two cups of strong coffee (or whatever you can manage without feeling sick).
What sort of mood you’re in can have a massive effect on how you play. Being happy or sad, elated or depressed can change how you move and interact with your prop. Mood can be a difficult one to change but it can be useful to take note of what mood you’re in and how that effects your playing. Breathing exercises can potentially be used to change one’s mood (see Breathing Exercises).
Flow is a state where you are at one with your prop and are not consciously concerned with what move you are going to do next or how you are going to do it. Playing in flow states is immensely enjoyable and can help you to come up with new moves although unless you are filming yourself it can be different to remember exactly what you did. Flow is a large topic and I talk more about it here.
A rich source of new material comes from noticing what happens when you make a mistake. It’s important not to just dismiss something because you didn’t intend to do it. Always be on the look out for new movements that happen seemingly by accident. Penicillin, x-rays and LSD were all discovered in this way so it a useful one to be constantly aware of.
The way to do this is simply to be continually aware of what’s going on when you are trying to learn new moves or are just playing around. If something repeatedly goes wrong the same way then that generally shows the object lends itself to a certain movement which might well be worth exploring. If something goes wrong and you don’t quite know what happened then try and repeat it and see if you can find anything interesting.
Exercise: Play for thirty minutes and everytime something goes “wrong” stop and try and make the same “mistake” again to see if it’s anything interesting.
Sometimes people consider the following methods to be somewhat cold and not very arty. If you feel this way that’s fine by me. Obviously I’m not trying to force you to use them, but I find that they sometimes suggest different moves that my brain wouldn’t necessarily have thought of by itself.
When I’m playing with a movement I’ll often think about breaking it down into it’s simplest form. What sort of movement is it? How would I describe it to someone? How would I teach it to someone? This then gives me a good understanding of it and then I can think about varying every aspect systematically against a check-list in my head and seeing if that suggests any new movements. For example, at each point in the move I could try and add a throw, roll, jump or turn. Generally this type of systematic experimentation also involves trying it in one hand then the other, or in both hands and in every timing and direction. This can also be done in a more formalised fashion. The next three figures look at different more structured ways of doing this.
Figure 1 shows an example of a table of club juggling moves (but the concept can be applied to many skills). Write down all the moves you can think of then try combining them with each other. To clarify I don’t mean doing one after another I mean if elements of each move were combined to form a new move what would it look like? There are often multiple ways you can do this. Also what happens when you combine a move with itself? Or instead you could think about ways to transition between the two moves and can the transition itself be turned into a new move?
Figure 2 is meant to be general so it applies to various different types of object manipulation. If you were going to use it for juggling you could add a letter to each red spot and then try systematically making throws from every spot to every other spot. You could add a apostrophe to the end of the letter to signify whether the throw/catch is in front or behind you. You could also do something similar with any spinning prop by creating sequences of circles in front and behind your body. You could workout all the different options or just randomly write down letters and see what random moves you come up with then adapt them into something interesting.
Figure 3 (for spinning two props) is a list of variables that have been assigned to the numbers one to six. You can weight the variables to favour options you’re more interested in. Then you roll a die for each row and note down the result from the table. This gives you a list of requirements for a move that you can try. For example if you rolled 31365455 then the move would be vertical wall plane, same time, same direction, 360 turn, crossed arms, behind the back, 1:1 with a throw. You might not find the move interesting but it might help you to think of something similar that is interesting. Instead of a table this could also be done in a rotating circle spinner or a deck of cards with the move names on them (see “The Poi Game” for a very well structured and thorough implementation of this).
Sometimes you come across a move that seems different to the other moves you have in some respect. The object might move in a different way or might make you move in a different way. When this happens it can be productive to try and break-down the move and work out what about it makes it different. Can this difference be applied to other moves you already do? Can it be built upon in other ways? I find the more different ways I find to play with a toy the more satisfying it is to play with. It can also make it more interesting to watch.
Exercise: Create a figure that specifically applies to your form of skill play and spend half an hour working on new moves with it.
Trying to develop models of the different movements or forms of notation that can be used to describe them can help with coming up with new moves as well as making it easier to communicate ideas. A good example of this is siteswap in juggling. Siteswap assigns a number to how many beats a ball is in the air. This allows complex juggling patterns to be described on paper relatively simply. It also helped to come up with a bunch of new moves. Trying to model different aspects of movement can help you to see new ways of doing things that you perhaps hadn’t thought of yet.
This can be particularly interesting when you can then feed this information into a computer and get it to do the movements for you. There are many free siteswap generators on the internet which you can encourage to juggle different patterns for you. I’ve also seen some poi simulators around and even a diabolo siteswap generator.
Exercise: Try and create a form of notation that describes some aspect of your skill play.
When I’m writing a workshop I’ll often play around with moves in a different way to how I play if I’m just doing it for my own benefit. I might try and create more variations of moves I’m going to teach. Similarly putting together a performance can throw up situations that have specific requirements and sometimes this leads to creating new moves. Teaching and performing constantly challenge and scare me and these challenges can be boiling pots for creativity.
Exercise: Write and teach an 60 or 90 minute workshop on some aspect of your skill play that you are interested in.
Exercise: Write and perform a routne at a gathering or talent show.
Sometimes it can be intimidating to stare into the limitless abyss of endless possibility that stretches out in front of us to infinity (and sometimes even slightly further) when we stand with our props wandering what to do next. This limitless possibility can be off putting and leave us not knowing where to start. Therefore, it can be helpful to find a middle ground between structured and unstructured play where a few rules are set that we can cling to.
Restrictions can help focus our thoughts and force us in different directions that we might not have otherwise considered. For example, keeping hands together, arms crossed. sitting down, lying down, object always in contact with body or simply playing in a small space or under a low ceiling. What you wear can impose certain restrictions upon what moves are possible such as tight or bulky clothing. Imposing restrictions on your movement can be a great way to come up with new moves.
A slightly different version of this would be a restriction like “play ugly”. Many people spend all their time trying to look good while they play so flipping this on its head and trying to make everything look as ugly and awkward as possible can be a good way to change how you think about moves.
Exercise: Spend thirty minutes playing using some of the restrictions above or any other ones you can think of.
They are a great many theatre-style games that can be useful exercises while playing. For example you could chose an emotion (happy, sad, angry or bored) and play while trying to convey that emotion. An extension of this is to do it from 1 to 10. Starting moving at happy level one – the minimal amount of happy you can possibly express (but still happy and not sad). Then try increasing it level by level until you reach 10 – where you are so overcome by happiness that you can barely stand.
A similar exercise involves levels of tension. The standard version of this (developed by Jacques Lecoq) involves seven levels of tension: 1. jelly/exhausted, 2. relaxed Californian, 3. neutral, 4. alert, 5. suspense (is there a bomb?), 6. passionate (bomb!), 7. tragic/rigor mortis. So level 1 is no tension whatsoever and level 7 is completely stiff. Playing in these levels of tension can be very interesting and completely change how you move.
Another great exercise involves having your movement take on characteristics of the elements: earth/wood, air, fire and water. You can use whatever characteristics spring to mind for you, but here’s some suggestions. Earth/wood is solid and moves slowly and stiffly. It is heavy, masculine and definite. Air is floaty, feminine and light. It is easily blown around. Fire is fast, jerky and excited. Breathing is shallow and accelerated and the eyes are alight. Water is smooth and flowy, relaxed but continually moving. Be aware of how you are breathing and your level of tension for each element. Again these can be done from 1 to 10. Different types of music will suit different types of elemental movement.
I’d recommend trying all these exercises first without props and then try them playing with props.
In a similar vein wearing different types of clothing can make you want to move in different ways. Floaty pretty clothing might make you want to move very differently to more scruffy or grungy clothing. Dressing up as a character can be a fun exercise. You can consider what elemental qualities might apply to that character and what level of tension or mood they might be in.
Exercise: Spend at least thirty minutes playing with emotions, elements and levels of tension.
How much do you know about breathing? Presumably because you’re sitting reading this you’ve grasped the basics. But would you say you are good at breathing? Many people might be surprised to learn that breathing is definitely something you can get really good at. Breathing techniques can be used as an incredibly powerful tool to change one’s mental and physical state. In this section I’m going to briefly list some interesting breathing techniques. However, I’m not recommending trying them because they all have the potential to negatively impact your health if done wrongly. Because the all involve being more enthusiast about your breathing they could potentially cause you to hyperventilate if you are not careful. These exercises are initially much easier to do with someone guiding you in person, but if you’re going to try them alone I’d suggest finding an online video tutorial. These breathing exercises could be done before a play session or perhaps even during.
Bellows Breath (Bhakstrika Pranayam) – this is a powerful breathing technique that involves deep slow abdominal breathing. It is like using your lungs as a set of bellows to fan the fire that is your energy levels. It is advisable not to do this technique while standing up.
Shining Skull (Vatakrama Kapalabhati) – this is similar to Bellows Breath but with active exhalation and passive inhalation. It is usually done in a sequence involving a couple of deep breaths, a set number of rounds of active exhalations and passive inhalations and then a period of holding one’s breath. This technique is sometimes referred to as “Yogic coffee”. I think this technique has a lot of potential for getting you into a good state before a play session.
Breath of Fire (Agni Prasana) – this is a faster form of breathing where the inhale and exhale are both active and equal. The breaths are quite short and sharp. Some people use this technique to increase their energy levels.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Anuloma Viloma Pranayama) – This describes a number of techniques which involve breathing through the nostrils one at a time. Some people claim that breathing solely through your left nostril activates the right hemisphere of your brain and promotes creativity. I have no specific experience with this technique but I find the idea interesting.
Reverse Breathing – No, not that sort of reverse “breathing”. This technique involves expanding the abdomen when breathing out and contracting the abdomen when breathing in. This type of breathing is practised in some martial arts because it is meant to bring your awareness to your breathing.
Holding Your Breath – This clearly could have harmful side-effects. Holding your breath makes you think differently and could potentially be worth experimenting with. Some people use it to increase will-power. Surprisingly the record for holding your breath is almost ten minutes (and it’s more like twenty minutes if you inhale pure oxygen beforehand).
On a random side note: if you’re looking for a particularly showy form of breathing to impress your mates down the pub then it has to be kechari mudra where you stick your tongue back and up into the nasal cavity so it looks like you’re trying to lick your brain. This technique is ridiculously difficult to learn because most people would need to considerably stretch their lingual frenulum – the bit of flesh that joins the tongue to the bottom of the mouth (some even resort to cutting it, eek).
Exercise: Do a few sequences of Shining Skull Breathing and then play and see if it has any effect on you mood or energy levels. Do the same with Breath of Fire.
Playing with where your awareness is focussed can have interesting effects. You can send your focus to what’s going on inside your head or to what your doing or to what’s going on in the environment around you. You can also try and send your awareness to different parts of your body or to your breathing. This can include considering where you have various points of tension while you play or where your weighting is on each foot.
Mindfulness is a common concept in Eastern philosophies and at it’s simpliest level it is about “being present” and focussing your awareness on the task you are engaged in. It is about being one hundrd percent in the moment and thinking about what you are doing and not more peripheral things like whether or not you need a haircut or what you are going to have for dinner.
Meditation can also be considered to be another form of playing with awareness. When meditating people often direct there thoughts inwardly or focus on their breathing. It can be interesting to explore meditation techniques and try and incorporate them in some form into your play sessions.
Exercise: Spend thirty minutes playing while shifting your focus to different parts of your body.
I have come up with many ideas for new moves while not actually engaged in skill play at all. In fact many important scientific and artistic ideas have allegedly occurred while daydreaming or asleep (Kekulé’s structure of benzene, Einstein’s General Relativity, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”). Getting in touch with our unconscious mind can be a very fruitful approach to creativity.
For me one of my most productive states is when I’m “zoned out” – this occurs when I’m engaged in a repetitive task that I do not need to consciously think about so my brain can wonder off and do it’s own thing. You probably know what tasks make you “zone out”. You could set intention before such a task to think about your skill play then engage in the task and see if when you “zone out” you end up thinking about it. I find a pleasant way to do this can be to take long quite walks where I’m familiar with the route of the walk so I don’t have to think about where I’m going.
Exercise: Engage in a easy repetitive task and attempt to zone out while thinking about skill play.
Sometimes I just make myself daydream about skill play. You can try and do this as follows: sit or lie down comfortably (but not so comfortably that you’re likely to fall asleep) then spend a few minutes with your eyes closed focussing on your breathing. Take quite large slow breaths filling your lungs from the bottom to the top. As breath in think “one” and as you breath out think “two”. While doing this try and relax your whole body and just think about breathing and nothing else. If your mind strays bring it gently back. After you’ve done this for a few minutes you should hopefully feel nice and relaxed. Then imagine yourself engaged in skill play. Because it’s a dream you can do whatever moves you like so I go for it. To make the daydream as real as possible try to bring in as many different senses as you can.
There are a large number of ways to do this exercise. You can do it with music on in the background and different types of music will probably yield different results. You can also imagine you are watching yourself as an outside observer. Or you could imagine someone else is doing the skill and giving you a private show and that can be someone who you think is particularly good or anyone else you like! Then while you’re observing them/you you can see if they do anything new and interesting and if you see anything of interest write it down and have a go at it after your daydreaming session. Even if this doesn’t yield anything new it can be educational to see how an idealised version of yourself plays.
Less useful but still interesting and diverting are imagining yourself as the prop and someone is manipulating you (best not to over-analyse why you’d want to do this) or to imagine skill play without any of the regular physical constraints such as gravity or number of limbs.
There is some evidence that suggests imagining doing things fires the same circuits as actually doing them so it might actually aid your practice to some extent. But bear in mind (argh, get it out) that spending more time sitting around thinking about playing then actually doing it will probably be unhelpful in the long run – it can’t be used as a complete alternative.
Exercise: Spending at least fifteen minutes daydreaming about skill play.
I’ve known that a lot of fun could be had with ping-pong balls for sometime, but recently I came across this interesting phenomenon. If you cut a ping-pong ball in half and put half over each eye you can have your eyes open but have a completely blank white field of vision. If you also listen to white noise at the same time then after a while the brain can become a little confused and you might start to see visuals. It took me a little practice to get the hang of this but it can be quite fun to try. You can cut the ping-pong balls in an in-out-in-out wavy fashion so they better fit the contours of your eye. I also attached a thin line of blu-tack around the edge to help the ball remain over my eye but you could just tape it there. You need to be under a reasonably even light source to get a nice and blank field of vision. I’d recommend setting aside at least half an hour to try this because it can easily take fifteen minutes just to relax.
This effect can also be tried while actually playing (depending on whether or not you can perform your skill without sight). Obviously you’d need to be somewhere where you’re not going to hit anyone or fall off a cliff. You’d also need headphones with a cable that doesn’t get in the way (I prefer wireless). You could listen to music instead of white noise and then it’s acts a bit like a weird blindfold.
Exercise: Spend half an hour sitting down in an evenly lit room with half ping-pong balls over your eyes and listening to white noise.
REM Sleep (the stage of sleep where we most commonly dream) is widely accepted to be incredibly important for creativity. Starting to keep a dream journal can help you to remember your dreams which can also help to bring you further in contact with your unconscious. As soon as you wake up try and write down as much as possible of what you can remember of your dreams. To start with this may only be very brief fragments. However, if you note down any fragments, however seemingly insignificant, then over a period of time this will usually build up to fuller accounts of multiple dreams that have taken place over your sleep period. Straight after naps is also a good time to attempt dream recall and some people find this easier than after a full nights’ sleep. Once you have decent dream recall you can set your intention before you fall asleep to dream about skill play. When I dream I often think about somewhat impractical moves but I do also occasionally dream about something that works.
Keeping a dream journal is also the first step to learning lucid dreaming. This is where you are aware you are dreaming while in a dream. This can be developed so that you are able to take control of the events taking place in the dream, which can be a powerful tool for creativity. If you are interested in this topic I recommend reading Exploring the World of Lucid Dreams by Steohen LaBerge.
Exercise: Try keeping a dream journal for at least a month.
Doodling is like visualising but with paper. Below is a doodle of spin vs antispin vs extension (these are spinning terms). It helps me to look at it and imagine different sequences I want to try. Sometimes I just randomly doodle shapes and this helps me come up with new ideas for moves or props.
Exercise: Spending thirty minutes doodling whatever comes into your head while vaguely thinking about skill play.
Playing by yourself can be a lot of fun, but often playing with others can be even more rewarding. Festivals, conventions, gatherings and meets are the great opportunities to share ideas and learn from others. A little idea, shared with other people, can easily become a big idea.
Partner work can be very rewarding. Most of the exercises in this article can be done with another person focussing on how you relate to the other person. Moves with two people opens up a whole other world of what’s possible with your prop, from doing the same moves at the same time to both playing with the same prop to how you can simultaneously play with and exchange props between the two of you.
Exercise: Go to a convention or gathering where poeple will be doing the skill play you are interested in. Play with them.
These days there is a seemingly limitless wealth of online videos that are freely available and just waiting to inspire you and send you off in different directions. It is interesting to note that watching a bunch of inspirational skill play videos just before playing might well help to get you into a state where you are more creative. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire the same way when we perform an action as well as when we see others perform it. I certainly find that sometimes half an hour of skill-play videos before a play session can do a great job of inspiring me and putting me in the right mind-set to want to play.
A good performance is many times better when viewed live so if there are any relevant shows that you can go to then this can be very useful.
To take this one step further it can be productive to study the people who you consider are really good. Whatever your chosen form of skill play there are probably people in it who are considered to be the best in some way, shape or form. Finding out about these people can sometimes be fruitful. What is/was their process? What was their background? Who were their inspirations? Some forms of skill-play have a long history that might include styles that have gone out of fashion. These are probably still worth investigating.
Exercise: Spend thirty minutes watching internet videos of other people performing.
Here you can learn new moves and they often force you to play how someone else plays which can make you come up with different material. I generally find workshops difficult to start with because I don’t really want to play how someone else is telling me to. But usually by the end of a good workshop I’ll have come up with new material that I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.
On a slightly different vein online tutorials can also be great. They’re generally not as good as having the person there to teach you stuff but they can still make you think about moves in different ways.
Exercise: Spend half an hour watching online tutorials.
In terms of object manipulation a thorough grounding in a variety of props helps you to think of different ways you can manipulate things. In a similar way familiarity with different styles of dance helps you to think about how you move while you are moving your prop.
Seemingly unrelated disciplines like geometry or architecture might also inspire you to try different movements. Everything can be broken down into shapes and patterns which can in term be reproduced in some fashion with movement. Or aAre you interested or particularly good at some other skill such as playing an instrument or painting? Is there some way which you can incorporate lessons you’ve learnt from these skills into your skill play?
Exercise: Go to a dance class (preferably a free taster session) for a form of dance you haven’t tried before.
Exercise: Learn a new form of skill play. Why not try poi spinning or hula-hoop?
It is interesting to note that by encouraging one’s own creativity on this small scale we are also encouraging ourselves to rebel against conformity on a larger scale and thus perhaps society as a whole. This may or may not be true and may or may not be a bad thing. Anyway, hopefully by now you have a number of tools at your disposal to help you come up with new moves. In my opinion the next stage is practising them, the penultimate stage is sharing them and the final stage is enjoying how they evolve in other people’s hands. There really isn’t a limit to how many moves you can come up with in any form of skill play. Infinity stretches out in front of you – go play with it.
Here’s some links on creativity. They are kinda varied but I find them inspiring.
A Model of the Creative Process PDF
This PDF is perhaps intended for more of a business audience but I still find its content and layout very interesting.
TED Talk: Ken Robinson says Schools Kill Creativity
The story about the girl drawing God is my favourite bit.
TED Talk: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow
Brilliant. Why don’t they teach this stuff in schools?
TED Talk: Elizabeth Gilbert: A New Way to Think About Creativity
I love the end bit about dancers. Just keep showing up.
John Cleese – A Lecture on Creativity
Very funny talk. A kinda sciencey approach to a more business orientated look at creativity.
This is not a exhaustive list of ways to explore move discovery in skill play. Such a thing would be as impossible to produce as an exhaustive list of moves for a skill play prop. If you have any suggestions for other techniques/ideas or modifications of the ones I’ve described I’d be interested in hearing them and perhaps adding them to this article. Please put them in the comment box below. Here’s a list of people whose ideas I have included from their comments/discussions: Atiya Khan, Tink in Tokyo, Meghan Claire Pike, Ronan McLoughlin, Ben Cornish, Kenna Hoops, Vid Warren, Tim Marston.