When I started playing kendama five years ago, one of the very first things I did was look it up online. Immediately I was slammed in the eyes by these incredible videos of players who knew how to play and did so with such effortlessness and style, stringing tricks together one by one, until eventually capping the sequence with a finisher. Part of the allure of kendama for me was exactly that, the ease and grace with which these players moved, always seeming to land the trick right at the moment it looks like it’s going to fail. Soon after, I found out about freestyle competitions, where players are allotted a specific amount of time to perform whatever they want on stage, landing whatever flows into their minds.
I wanted to have the ability to just flow with kendama, and maybe you do as well! I'd like to outline some thoughts and ideas that you can take to your practice and play routines.
I was lucky, today’s newcomers are even luckier, that there are tutorials for tricks all over the Web. If you go to YouTube and look up the phrase "kendama tutorials", you’ll find dozens upon dozens of videos from a myriad of folks, ranging in difficulty from the absolute beginner, all the way up to tricks that are difficult to most people because they are conceptually new to everyone.
In my beginnings, I soaked up every learning resource I could find, watching every tutorial. I’d even watch the same trick explained by multiple videos, sometimes in languages I didn’t speak! By doing this, I was attempting to comprehend the tricks and the reasons why they worked, rather than just simply trying it until it happened. Once I felt I understood the principles of the trick, only then would I go and attempt it. Further, by practicing all different styles of tricks, I could build a better understanding of kendama as a whole.
Every time I do a trick, there is both a starting and ending position. Let’s take for example the trick, Big cup in Ken grip, being the first trick I want to do in a combo.
If I'm flowing or freestyling, I would want to do another trick after landing big cup; this would then make the starting position for my next trick “Ken Grip Big Cup” position.
In order to build on this combo, a player could do many things, but one way could be considering all your options from this position. From big cup, I would think critically about all the tricks that I can do from this spot. Making a list for yourself could even provide to be an interesting thought experiment and help you discover new paths for your play.
Outs from Big Cup:
This video shows beautifully just how outside-the-box your play can become, just with one cup! Consider while watching how you can combine tricks in this video to start flowing, just around big cup tricks, and the ideas could really start flowing.
The list could go on and on, each trick’s end position becoming the start of another. Personally, I loved learning Sara Grip tricks as a new player, recognizing the grip’s traditional significance in the JKA (Japan Kendama Association). I learned big cup, then followed that with many other sara grip tricks, building a category in my mind that were all in the same grip, making it much easier to intersperse them into play when I didn’t have a plan ahead of time. Looking at professional performers like Zoomadanke, it’s insightful to note that much of their flow lines utilize the big cup and Sara grip, adding patterns and movements to make the entire sequence seem much more difficult. The same can be true of flowing as a beginner player. Equipped with the proper mindset, a beginner player can flow just like the pros.
An edit Zoomadanke make for KWC 2020. Note that they aren't always doing the hardest kendama tricks out there, but combining tricks together that mesh well within an entire set.
At the start, it’s easy to fall into the trap of learning flow just because it looks cool but becoming frustrated when it doesn’t click. Learn tricks that are fun you want to show off and find places where those tricks can fit in with others you already do. It took me quite a long time to realize that flowing isn’t flowing if it’s not fun!
We can't talk about flow without honoring Dave Mateo. Please enjoy his Spike Hard Catch Low Edit #1 and join me in remembering him. Dave was and will always be an icon in the kendama community.