History (sort of)
Flag dancing (also dubbed flagging dance or flagging*) has its ancestor in traditional color guard techniques and equipment, and in the 1990's became popular in pockets of urban gay club-culture, following the trend of fan-dancing, in both cases, large and colorful flags or fans are spun around the body, like wings, veils, sails. I have zero experience with the club scene in any major city, so I can only regurgitate from the web(but of course, please msg me if you can add clarity). I do know that troupes exist who flag for events and parties. Sounds like a fun job. Somewhat ironically, christian evangelical groups apparently also use the term flagging to denote their use of flags at liturgical celebrations.
I learned to play with flags in the fire performance circuit, where they are viewed as little more than "training toys." Even in the burner community, dancing is not considered highly valuable (unless you are a naked and attractive girl) as knowing a lot of very difficult moves with poi, staff and deviations thereof, and performing them correctly.
My favorite story involved flag dancing was at Burning Man several years ago. An elder gentleman, perhaps in his sixties, with stunning white hair got up onto a performance platform and started dancing. From the waist up he was bare, and on his legs he wore blazing, safety orange pants of the tie-on variety. He danced until the audience's attention started to wander. At this point he reached down, ripped off his pants, which turned out to be two rectangular flags, and started spinning them in wild patterns around his head. He was now, of course, completely nude. Chillin. Dancing in the desert.
To spin silk flags, it is absolutely necessary to have one or preferably a pair of flags. This is the only item you will need (okay, maybe shoes if it's cold or rough terrain, and clothing if it's in public). Poi manufacturers have just begun to pick up on this artform, making up "poi flags" which are basically strings with triangular sheets of brightly colored nylon sewn to the cord along the longest edge. Also commercially available are color guard flags, which are generally rectangular or triangular flags attached to a long pole. Neither of these is what you want. I have even seen otherwise great flags ruined by adding a cord by which to swing them. Best to avoid the cords and handles and poles altogether. You may find individuals or troupes who make flags, or even custom make a set, just for you.*
"So what am I supposed to use?" I hear you asking. Well, you can construct a large network of friends until you eventually find someone who is giving away an old set. But for the best experience, you will have to make your own. Yes, this will involve sewing. The materials you will need are:
Two identically sized and shaped rectangles of fabric (you can use other shapes as long as both flags are the same, but for weighting purposes, it is easier to explain for rectangles) My favorite type of flag to spin is silk, but lightweight nylon, or any other light non-stretchy material that makes you think "parachute" will work just fine. Lightweight rayon tends to be way too stretchy, and it's essential to choose a woven, not knit fabric. I find shirt-weight cotton is a bit too heavy and stiff for any sustained spinning, but you use what you must. I've had luck making small, mismatched flags from Salvation Army/thrift shop square silk scarves. These go for around 3-10 US dollars (2006 prices), depending on where you live. If you want to make flags just like mine, 22.5x33 inches is good, because most commercial bolts of fabric are 45 inches wide, so you can just buy the length you want and split it down the center to get two flags. I like the roughly 2:3 ratio.
You will also need beaded curtain weight, or some substitute. Since we are not using a pole or a wire, and instead are opting for the more flexible route, we still need to weight down the corner of the flag so it will slice through the air instead of flibberting around like a silk scarf. Beaded weight is basically a fabric tube with heavy beads along its length. Its intended purpose is to hold down the hems of heavy drapes. If you don't have a fabric store with a good upholstery secion handy, try your thrift shop for old heavy drapes that you wouldn't feel bad chopping up. You might even get lucky and find flowy sheer ones, so you can use the material and the weight.
If you absolutely cannot find beaded weight, jewelry weight ball chain is probably good enough, but it's going to hurt if you smack yourself. The length of the weight will be determined by the size of your flag. If you opted to follow my instructions for size above, you just need to buy a length of 145 inches, you may want to allow a bit of room for fraying and mistakes. If you didn't follow my instructions, I hope you are okay with basic arithmetic. For each flag, measure the length of the short side, multiply by 3 and add 2.5. This is the number of inches of weight you want.
SpinTribe** also has a weight calculator that is very useful.
Update! sadly, spintribe is no longer, but user pyrotechniq informs me that there is a calculator at the pyrotechniq site as well.
So you need to hem one short and one long side of your rectangle. These don't get any weight. You're going to cut your beaded weight next. For one flag, you will need a length which is 2/3 the long side(A), 1/2 the short side(B), 1/4 the short side(C) and 1/2 the long side(D).
I've never claimed to have ascii powers, but here you go:
R| _________________ (A) |H
o|| __________ (D) |e
Spread out the silk on a table or other clean flat spot. The basic idea is to roll the silk around the (D) weight, on the longest side. Make sure to have the weight near the corner with the short, unhemmed side, but leave about half and inch of wiggle room. Baste that into place. Then take the (A) weight, lay it on the silk next to (D), roll (A) around, pulling a bit of silk around both weights, then baste this as well. You'll repeat this on the short side, starting with (C), then adding (B). You shoul now hem the parts of the weighted sides that have no weight at the edge, and sew the weights down a bit more securely. Flag one is done, move onto the second. Once you've managed that, you'll have a lovely pair of flags.
The first time around, just take one flag in your non-dominant hand. Hold it on the long side, right where the weight goes from two layers to one layer. You can pinch with two fingers, but I prefer to lay the weight along the heel of my hand, and wrap my fingers around it, we're talking about a golf grip, here. Give it a swish so that the silk isn't grabbing itself. Now just swing your arm in big lazy cirles. Change speeds, directions, this is your warm up. Switch hands and repeat. You can cross the flag in front of your body to make a figure 8 loop. Swing the flag in a circle so that it comes up when behind you, and down when in front of you. When your hand gets to the top of the circle, swiftly move your hand across and down, to being the next circle on your opposite side.
Check out my directions for the weave, the steps are basically the same, but to weave with flags, you will be wrapping and unwrapping. Don't worry, you are always wrapping the same number of times on the left side, then unwrapping that same number on your right side. You're cool. It looks beautiful.
Flags are for dancing, and you'll find out that poi tricks require a bit more flexibility and planning, if they can be done at all. At some point, you may notice that for every turn, you must do one turn in the other direction to prevent twisting your silk into a thin, disagreeable rope. With practice, you will stop having to count your turns, and begin to feel them. Once your intuition kicks in, flags become *the* tool for dancing. They limit you in delicious ways, and introduce every plane as an avenue for exploration.
I tell people, when they ask, That this is only about having fun, we are relearning movements that we understood as children. Stick out an arm? Suddenly you have to counteract that weight. About to be grazed by a flaming poi? Better learn to dodge without falling down. Eventually it turns fluid on you, before you even notice. When you get to this point, if you haven't already, find a hill or seawall or rockface to stand on barefoot at dawn. Spin like your life depends on it. This is dance. This is finding freedom by imposing limitations. This is the buzz you've been waiting for.
Call it balance.
*Flagging has another distict connotation in the gay leather scene, and later permeated out to the wider BDSM/Kink scene. It refers to the wearing of bandanas in a back pants pocket, also known as the pocket hanky code. Right side means you are a "bottom," left side means you are a "top," and colors/patterns indicate which particular activity you are seeking. Presumably this was to reduce the need to talk about a given fetish in a public place like a club, in some senses it is a holdover from the days when kink/leather was very severely frowned upon. Flagging has lost some popularity, but a key to decrypting the code can still be found in the node referenced, or on the web. Google yields many others. Please note, some of these "colors" border on ridiculous, and I doubt that very many could tell you what the difference is between "light yellow" and "medium yellow" without a key.
**If you are interested in making your own flags, and spinning in general, I strongly suggest that you visit http://www.spintribe.com/. They have a weight calculator, fabric guide, and mailing list to join for extended help. Or feel free to /msg me. I'm new to this gentle performance art, but I enjoy it a lot and would love to help get more people into it.
Spin tribe also has links to various troupes, and to some private flag makers/vendors.
Want to see videos and pics of dancers?
Axis Danz is a professional troupe based in New York City, their video is here: http://www.axisdanz.com/index.asp?PAGE=viewourreel
Perpetual Motion, based in Minnesota, offers a collection of pictures here: http://www.spintribe.com/perpetualmotion/photos/photos.html
Want to meet flaggers in your area, get information on moves, making flags in irregular shapes, flagging in zero gravity?
Check out SpinTribe and also http://www.flaggercentral.com/ as another source for videos, pictures, instructions on making flags and to find flaggers in your area or communicate on their forum.
Another great resource is Dharma trading. This is the place to find relatively inexpensive, undyed silk scarves, plus dying supplies and other materials for the fiber arts.