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Noho: Yo-yo Hotspot

Easthampton-based Spin Dynamics will release its new yo-yo The Monkey's Fist at this year's Z-Games.

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Thursday, March 29, 2012
Photo By Mark Roessler
Spin Dynamic's Nick Gumlaw takes The Monkey's Fist for a spin

A hundred-dollar yo-yo?

To anyone for whom grade school is a distant memory, the idea of spending so much on such a basic toy may seem preposterous. A lot has changed, though, in the world of yo-yoing over the last decade. As with the snowboard and Frisbee before it, mastery of the yo-yo has evolved into an internationally recognized sport.

Yo-yos are not just for punk-ass kids anymore.

For Nick Gumlaw of Easthampton, the Smooth Move Yo-Yo made by Spin Dynamics—which retails for around $110—is a dream come true. It's the ideal piece of equipment, tailored to his specific needs. It should be: he designed it and had it manufactured locally to his demanding specifications.

Founded last July, Spin Dynamics is Gumlaw's new company, dedicated to "engineering high-quality precision yo-yos in the U.S.A." Even though he's been making yo-yos for less than a year, his machine-tooled aluminum spindles have been selling well and the beauty of their design has been receiving accolades from the industry. There are still many yo-yos manufactured for a fraction of the price (the author spent $15 on his), but the standards and performance required by the ever-growing legion of experts can be demanding.

While he designed the Smooth Move with his own performance in mind, he's been hard at work on a second model, The Monkey Fist, which is geared to please a wider audience. When he and fellow yo-yo enthusiasts were interviewed by the Valley Advocate last week, Gumlaw had only just received the finished products from the company in Westfield that adds a plating to the aluminum base. He was busy getting them ready for their premiere at the Northeast Regional Yo-yo contest to be held on April 1 at the J.F.K. Middle School in Florence, where, in addition to peddling his fancy hardware, he will be one of the judges.

Currently in its ninth year, the competition is popularly known as the Z-Games after its host, Northampton's A2Z Science and Learning Store, which is where Gumlaw works when he's not manufacturing product. As well as being his boss, Gumlaw credits Jack Finn, the store's owner, with being one of his early yo-yoing mentors.

Since moving the store from Thornes to its current King Street location 15 years ago, Finn has become something of a yo-yo evangelist. In addition to hosting the annual event, every week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the store hosts an hour-long free yo-yo class at 4:30 p.m. Regular attendees can show off new tricks they've learned and work their way toward joining the store team, which meets monthly, performs regularly and heads down to Florida every year in August for the international competition. The team has even produced a national champion, Eric Koloski, who still sometimes helps teach classes.

"In yo-yo circles, Northampton's internationally known as being a hot spot," Finn said. "At least one yo-yo pro moved his family out here to be part of our community. He and his kids would come out regularly from Boston to attend our classes, and after a while, they just decided it would be easier to move to Belchertown."

*

If this story reads a little like an early April Fool's joke and you're having a hard time imagining how anyone could do anything with a bauble attached to a string that could be deemed professional or worthy of competition, it's probably been more than a decade since you've watched someone perform with any proficiency. Even if you never intend to try it yourself, the classes are worth peeking in on.

You're likely to be astounded.

The best modern yo-yoers have turned the toy into an art form, offering a fluid dance between gravity, friction and centrifugal force.

A small technological leap has vastly expanded what's possible with a spindle spinning at the end of a thrown line. Before the mid-1990s, a yo-yo's string was attached to a fixed axle. When thrown, the whole yo-yo spun as a single unit, and the friction created by the threads rubbing against the axle caused it to slow quickly.

This wasn't a problem for those who simply enjoyed bobbing the yo-yo up and down rhythmically, but anything more sophisticated requires the device to "sleep"—spin at the end of the string without automatically winding itself back up. This allows the performer to manipulate the string in different cat's-cradle-like configurations as the yo-yo swings and jumps about, finally returning to the athlete's palm when called. The longer the yo-yo spins, the more complex the performance can get.

"It used to be that you counted sleep times in seconds," Gumlaw said. "Now it's minutes."

Unlike those on yo-yos of a previous era, Gumlaw explained, the axle is now attached to a base surrounded by tiny ball bearings. Since the friction now falls on the bearings rather than the strings, it can take a long while for the spinning to stop. (In fact, as several Advocate editors discovered, the newfangled yo-yos sleep so deeply they can be difficult to wake up for those used to the older kind.)

Now, instead of there being only a handful of tricks to perform—Walk the Dog, Around the World and Trapeze being some of the classics—there are dozens and dozens with names like Split the Atom, Gerbil, Cold Fusion, Matrix, Pop-n-Fresh and Spirit Bomb.

New tricks and combinations are being dreamed up regularly, and performers can choose to specialize in different categories of tricks. Gumlaw himself likes performing "grinding" tricks—those which involve physically making contact with the yo-yo during the trick. Accordingly, he designed the Smooth Move to have narrow rims that minimized the friction while he ran the spinning device along his arm or leg, and instead of the outsides being flush with the edge, they're indented, like a tire rim, so he could better twirl the yo-yo on the end of his thumb.

Gumlaw didn't initially set out to go into business designing, building and selling high-end yo-yos.

"I've been taking night courses for a while over at Springfield Tech," he said, "working on my certificate for CAD/CAM—Computer Aided Design and Computer Aided Machining—and in one of the introductory courses, we had this two-and-a-half-hour block of time to mess around with the software and do whatever we wanted. I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I sat there for 10 minutes thinking about it when I looked down at my hip. Just like Jack, I carry my yo-yo around in a holster, and I thought, wouldn't that be cool if I could build that?"

His teacher found Gumlaw at his desk with his yo-yo all taken apart, busy trying to replicate what he saw on the screen. As Gumlaw puts it, "He instilled confidence in me that what I was trying to do was possible," and helped Gumlaw finish an initial drawing. Friends and colleagues at A2Z suggested he try and find a machine shop that could help him turn his plans to reality.

This process was somewhat less confidence-building.

"I found when I called a machine shop and told them I wanted to build a high quality, highly durable aluminum yo-yo, they don't really take you seriously," he said with a laugh. "I could feel the rejection through the phone and imagine the expressions on their faces. They weren't eager to meet with me. They didn't call me back. It was very frustrating. But then I got hold of one shop—I'm actually wearing their T-shirt right now. This is my machine shop. They're incredible. J&E Precision Engineering in Southampton. They treated me very professionally, and after we'd talked for a while, they invited me in to meet face to face."

In a couple of weeks they had built their first prototype, and in few months, the first edition hit store shelves.

*

While in person Gumlaw is fluid and masterful with his yo-yo, he says that his expertise leaves him the moment he steps on stage to compete. Instead, he prefers to judge yo-yo competitions, and now does so professionally.

As with other performance sports, contestants are given a set amount of time to perform as many varied tricks as possible. Given the speed of the tricks and the length of each routine, it takes a practiced eye to discern all that is going on and to be able to identify flaws and repetitions. Judges keep track by holding a counter in each hand, one for points and another for penalties.

The Z-Games emphasize inclusiveness and have competition categories even for beginners, but at their highest level, masters perform three-minute routines they've choreographed to music they've selected.

In between demonstrating basics to a new student, Daniel Dietz, one of the instructors at the weekly A2Z classes, explained that he'd been working on his routine for months now. He happily demonstrated a few moves he's been perfecting, but when asked what music he'd be performing to, he refused to say.

"We all like to keep that a secret from each other," he said. "It's better if it's a surprise. It's more dramatic that way."

Sunday's competition is free to spectators, and if past years are any indication, it will be a lot of fun. Go, watch, and see if you don't leave wishing you had what it takes to be worthy of a hundred dollar yo-yo.

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