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Playing along: Going for a spin

  • Yo-yos are stacked in the Yo-yo Expert's store. They ship the yo-yos all around the world.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • A yo-yo expert sign and kendamas, a Japanese skill toy, sit in the Yo-yo Expert store in Easthampton.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • John Higby of Belchertown is a yo-yo expert and yo-yo artist. Some of his paintings are displayed at the Yo-yo Expert store.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Andre Boulay teaches Bob Dunn how to properly put a yo-yo around his finger.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Andre Boulay demonstrates advanced yo-yo tricks.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Andre Boulay teaches Bob Dunn how to make an Eiffel Tower from the yo-yo string.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Bob Dunn practices string manipulation tricks.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Bob Dunn gets assistance from yo-yo expert Andre Boulay.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Bob Dunn attempts the around-the-world trick.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Bob Dunn almost completes around-the-world.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Bob Dunn successfully completes around-the-world.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Andre Boulay demonstrates off-string yo-yo tricks.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

There are things that I feel I did better when I was a child, like whistle through my cupped hands or remain optimistic.

Another is working a yo-yo.

Now, I was never any kind of expert or yo-yo showman, but I could usually make one drop toward the floor, come back up to my hand and ... well, that’s really about it.

Truth be told, I started playing with a yo-yo less because I wanted to learn how to do tricks with it, and more because I wanted to give the appearance of being the kind of guy who carried a yo-yo around.

Once I realized that was an obvious affectation, the charm wore off and into a drawer went the red plastic bauble, and that’s where it stayed.

But for many people, kids and adults alike, yo-yos have an enduring appeal. And André Boulay, 28, who owns and operates YoYoExpert in the Eastworks building on Pleasant Street in Easthampton, is one of them. The business sells yo-yos, parts, accessories and other toys all over the world through its website, which also provides instructional videos, some of which feature Boulay demonstrating his tricks. The site also offers a place for people interested in the hobby to interact.

Boulay used to teach yo-yo tricks at the A2Z Science store in Northampton, where he first got hooked on them around 1999. Though he went on to enter competitions, he no longer does so, preferring instead to organize and judge yo-yo events throughout the country. Competitions are held in many places around the globe these days, Boulay said. At them, spinners square off against each other to determine who is the most skilled; competitors are judged, he said, on the difficulty of the maneuvers they perform, and how well they’re presented.

Boulay, who lives with his wife, Devon, and brand-new son, Pierce, in Florence, has a master’s degree in neuroscience that he earned from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But the pull of the yo-yo, going back to the early days when he took a class at A2Z, eventually set him on a path, he said, of leaving science behind.

“You can take it with you anywhere,” he says of the easily portable yo-yo, “and there’s always something to work on and achieve.”

I asked Boulay if the notion that the modern yo-yo is actually a modified version of a simple weapon first used in the Philippines is true. Not so, he told me. The yo-yo was inspired by a device that originated in the Philippines, he said, but it was no more a weapon than the modern Western version. The idea, he said, was promoted by Donald Duncan, who bought the design rights to the yo-yo from a California-based company in the early 1930s, and ran with the idea of the toy as a re-purposed weapon.

The two of us talked at Boulay’s base of operations, though calling YoYoExpert an office seems like a stretch.

Sure, there are desks and papers, there may be a telephone or two somewhere in there as well, but the rest of the room is filled nearly to the ceiling with yo-yos, yo-yo strings, yo-yo parts, yo-yo videos, NERF toys and Kendamas, a wooden Japanese toy with a ball attached to a handle by a piece of string.

The object of the Kendama is to toss the ball up and catch it in one of the cups on the handle or on the spike at the handle’s end. I considered trying the Kendama, but it seemed too hard, so I stuck to yo-yos.

Boulay took one off the shelf and twisted it open, revealing a fair amount of science and engineering involved in the humble toy’s innards. Modern yo-yos have sets of ball bearings and rubber gaskets surrounding the spindle to keep everything spinning smoothly.

It’s not just the interiors that have changed since the old wooden hamburger bun-shaped yo-yos of years gone by. Modern yo-yos are made from a number of metals or plastics and come in designer colors, with custom-painted designs. Each one can be as individual as the person throwing it, Boulay said.

We started with a basic trick, called a sleeper, where the yo-yo is thrown toward the ground and it continues to spin on the end of the string without climbing back up until the operator gives a gentle tug.

After a few tries I got it, but it didn’t feel right. The string felt uncomfortable on my finger and I thought it was simply going to slip off and fly across the room. Boulay pointed out that I had the string on the wrong finger, and we moved on.

I found that there’s a great deal of satisfaction in flipping the yo-yo toward the ground and calling it back with subtle hand movements — it flies back up and lands in your palm with a good, firm snap. My satisfaction was short-lived, however, once Boulay started showing me that calling his enterprise YoYo Expert isn’t mere hyperbole. Boulay can literally make a yo-yo appear to dance on its string. Without even seeming to think about it, he’s bouncing and spinning it on its line, creating hoops and making it jump through them.

The demonstration appeared almost meditative, and Boulay agreed. He said that playing with a yo-yo, even at basic skill levels, can help a person relax — and he’s seen other therapeutic benefits as well over the 12 years or so he’s worked on his craft. Practicing with a yo-yo can improve fine motor skills, he said, and he’s also heard of people who have used them as smoking cessation tools. He said that smokers can gradually replace a cigarette pack with a yo-yo as the thing they impulsively reach for, eventually leading to quitting altogether.

Boulay decided that after a few more throws of the yo-yo, I was ready for an advanced trick. I had a different opinion, but I also had a deadline.

He showed me a trick called Eiffel Tower that involves a fairly complex series of movements in which the spinning yo-yo is manipulated around loops created in its own string to resemble the shape of the famous French landmark. It reminded me of playing cat’s cradle with a piece of string — which is something else I did a little as a child, but never with a spinning piece of plastic at one end of it. He also demonstrated one that’s called a ladder escape, an elaborate performance involving multiple steps, flips and loops that separates an accomplished spinner from the rest of us.

As good as he is, though, Boulay says there are always new, ever more complex tricks to learn. Innovations on the competition circuit are happening all the time and, at any given competition, from five to 10 new tricks will be displayed.

“Not many people know how much you can do with a yo-yo,” he said. “It’s very personally rewarding.”

With that in mind, if I can re-learn how to work a yo-yo, maybe there’s hope for that long-lost optimism as well.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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