Photography by: Alaina Walder
When I met Chelsea Cooper she was in the process of being assigned to be my supervisor at my very first internship out of graduate school. A daunting, thankless task really, it’s a wonder that she ever became my friend in the first place. Happily, this proved to be the start of two great things. One, she taught me the ins and outs of social work from the ground up. As a blank slate newbie, through two years of patient reiteration, somehow, she was able to mold me into an actual, viable social worker. Two, I made a really cool friend in the process. Not only is Chelsea one of the smartest people I know, she lives quite possibly the most fascinating double life I’ve ever witnessed. Her penchant for social justice and mental health counseling serves as her daytime personality that blossoms into a neon, Harley Quinn character when the lights go down; a flame wielding, hula hooping flow artist by the name of Chelsea Lenair. I used to think that these were two different people, two personalities that orbit one another in a harmonious pattern. But the more I learn about Chelsea, the more I realize that they are one in the same. Two sides of an ever calibrating scale that serve the same purpose.
I would come to know a key facet of Chelsea’s personality is expertly channeled chaos. A triple Libra threat that seeks to bring balance and order to madness. This is the nature of the flow arts, after all. The ability to harness forces so often seen as out of our control: fire, momentum, movement, and even fear. I am met head on with this type of tamed madness as Chelsea lights up her fire fans at the boat launch. The sound alone turns heads, an unexpected element to the entire performance. It is the sound of pure kinetic energy, the swooping of a fighter jet in flight. It grows louder as she twists and spins the instruments with precision. We have come to the Madisonville boat launch to simply take photos, but we quickly draw a crowd.
“Is this normal?” I ask Chelsea hesitantly as onlookers begin to gather.
“Oh yeah.” She laughs, unbothered. This has clearly become a part of her reality as a performance artist.
And how does one become a flow artist anyway? Chelsea claims it hasn’t always been a part of her self-expression, but the roots for it have long been cultivated. A master of fire fan, palm torch, LED hula-hoop, and contact staff, she perhaps began growing this passion as young as high school.
“I got my start into flow arts through my friends that were hoopers at the time. As a kid, I could not hula hoop at all. Really, two rotations and it was on the ground. In high school, I did participate in color guard and winterguard in band. At that time, I was spinning flags, rifle, and saber.”
At first flush, it seems difficult to reconcile such daring acts of performance with a doctrine of mental health and wellness. How do these elements fit together?
“It is the freedom of the movement and really going into the flow state. I equate it to a mindfulness state when I flow. Also, it feels therapeutic. I have used flow arts to release emotions that I have a hard time processing.” And it’s not entirely about mindfulness; it is also about finding a community of like-minded individuals that provide a support system. “I found a core group of chosen family from my flow arts community,” she says of her fellow performers. It is made apparent that this is a multidimensional experience for her.
Because I am a creature of fear, I’m still wondering, “Are you scared?” It is a natural question to ask someone who is currently piloting a flaming instrument in front many observing eyes.
“Um yeah, I’m always internally thinking, ‘OH MY GOD. IT’S HOT, DON’T BURN YOURSELF. DONT BURN YOURSELF.’ It’s very dangerous and I’m aware of it all the time. I have burned myself as well and seen people light themselves. The fear is real.”
And yet the most interesting element behind Chelsea’s performances isn’t the absolute audacity in nearly setting oneself aflame for the sake of art. It is the deeper meaning behind why she flows at all. It is in the way she strives to use her skills to create an empowering space for herself and for others.
“I feel like a superhero and my prop is my cape. It makes me feel so powerful to be able to move my body and paint this picture through flow.” The picture she wishes to paint is one of freedom, body-positivity, and equality. She explains how becoming involved in the flow arts community has not only bolstered her own confidence, but has connected her to her overall message of inclusivity and the fight for human rights.
“I have become more present in activism because of the flow arts community. I want to make the community as a whole a safer place for everyone. The online flow community has been notorious for not being a welcoming place for minorities. I took over as the Director of Infinite Circles Community Facebook group in June 2020. The group is one of the largest online flow communities with over 30,000 members. When I took over the group, I set out to make the ICC safer for all to be a part of. With my amazing admin team, we have made some big changes.”
It is in this statement that I see glimmers of the social worker, how the desire for a better world never quite escapes us even in our most recreational endeavors. Having dipped my toes very lightly into the rave scene, I have barely witnessed enough of the flow arts to constitute a baptism. But Chelsea is happy to share her experiences with me. She has garnered much of her notoriety as a member of the LED hula hooping marching krewe, Nola Night Lights, as well as with local performance group, Meraki.
“Flow culture is so much,” she emphasizes. “Some of my favorite memories have been parading with the Nola Night Lights and going to my first flow festival. Nola Night Lights got started in 2017. The first time we were in the Chewbacchus parade, it was one of the happiest times of my life. Then going to my first flow festival, FLAME, in 2019 made me want to learn more and further myself. It pushed me out of my comfort zone.” The future only holds bigger and better things as pandemic restrictions begin to lift and performers begin to reclaim their place in the local scene. “My favorite part of performing is the creative process of making the choreography and coming up with new ideas. The flow arts are always evolving so there are always new moves and props I want to learn. I want to increase my fire manipulation skills as well.”
It is a much bigger operation than I previously expected, and one that connects Chelsea and many others with their local culture. “I think that the creative current that flows through New Orleans also moves through the flow community. We walk in the parades, we street performed pre-COVID, and we flow at events just because we can. New Orleans culture lives and breathes through our flow.” It is ultimately this La Vie Bohème lifestyle that has allowed the flow arts to make its home so comfortably in the Big Easy. It is a natural fit.
The flow arts, as I am coming to realize, is a celebration of individuality. It is the fight to keep that spirit alive that makes it an art form in the first place. This is, in essence, what separates it from other performing arts. It is the ability to embrace the chaos and to showcase its most beautiful parts.
“It’s because no one’s flow is the same. Everyone’s flow is different from each other’s and it’s so beautiful to watch how everyone interprets the same move. You can tell a story in so many different ways with flow.”