By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
If you happen to see a video of someone playing Jenga with a whip or performing tricks with a flaming fire whip there’s a very good chance it’s April Choi working the whip. April combines the inquiring and calculating mind of an engineer with the grace of a dancer, a flair for fire and a passion for teaching to create new props and tools and teach others how to use them.
April grew up in a number of areas of the country and ended up in Iowa before coming to Peoria a few years ago as a contract research engineer at Caterpillar Inc. Her technical background includes a bachelors and masters in mechanical engineering with specialties in combustion systems and computational flow dynamics. She loves to combine her engineering side with her creative energy.
April’s mother started her in dance classes at a very young age as a way to keep her occupied and supervised. Later April got into ballroom and Latin dance competition and teaching before joining the University of Iowa swing club where she became known as a blues and swing instructor.
The next big change came when she discovered flow performance while teaching dance at a circus performance workshop. “I like the dance aspect,” she said, “but didn’t really like it until about a year ago when I started getting into fire eating and ways to make it magical. With flow performance you can lose yourself in the performance.” (Wikipedia defines flow arts as, “playful movement arts involving skill toys that are used to evoke the exploration of dynamic, flowing, and sequential movements.”)
Flow and fire performance also provides a great way to utilize her engineering side. Talking to April you quickly realize that she loves designing flow props as much as using them. “I love the performance aspect but my heart and soul goes into the technical aspects of things,” she explained. “I like combustion engines but I really like the thermal fluid process. For CFD [Computational Fluid Dynamics] it’s the actual equations that govern fluid dynamics – why fluid dynamics works. I like the math behind it. For the flow arts I like the physics of how all the elements interact.”
April spent months finding the perfect way to manufacture ideal fire whip, and is currently working on a new project. “It starts with inspiration,” she said. “The one I’m currently working on is a dragon staff with spikes on the ends that increase the inertia to keep it spinning. The idea is that if you put a bearing on the end then the spikes can continue to rotate. So, if we use clutch bearings we can do moves that you can’t normally do with a dragon staff.
“Then I start going through the design specs for the diameter of the staff, find the correct bearings, etc. I start manipulating the numbers in a CAD model and eventually build a bill of material, buy it, then build it.
“Research and development is my favorite part. Once I know how to manufacture it for the least amount possible – I’m bored. I don’t like the business management, I like the project management, process control, quality control and mechanical engineering. I want to concentrate on the mechanical design,” she explained.
April also puts a lot of energy into creating videos, both promotional and educational. Her promotional videos have landed her some exciting spots performing whip trick on network TV including “The Late Late Show with James Corden” and a variety show in Europe that’s broadcast to all of the Dutch speaking regions.
She’s also very excited about her teaching videos. “I absolutely love teaching,” she said. “To be able to teach something using all of the different forms of teaching and to be able to explain it to each and every kind of person; you have to get all the way down to the roots and understand the process to be an effective teacher.”