Cepeda column: Cardistry transforms deck of cards into performance art
PORTLAND, Ore. — What is cardistry?
I thought I knew.
It used to be that I’d describe cardistry to people as the choreographed manipulation of standard, poker-sized playing cards into beautiful, shifting shapes and patterns using hand movements like packet cuts, shuffles and fans.
But that was because I had only seen it performed and explained on YouTube. Sure, the flourishes, hand springs and acrobatic card moves are mesmerizing and impressive on video. But after stepping on to the dance floor of the historic McMenamins Crystal Ballroom here last weekend while attending the fifth annual Cardistry-Con, I now understand that it is a true performance art form.
You really have to see it live to believe that anyone would pour so many hours of hard work mastering intricate flips, pops, slides, fans and springs with 52 pieces of colorful paper.
But ohhhhhhhh such paper.
Because I have limited card-handling skills, low visual-art creativity and only an astronomically small fraction of the time necessary to practice the moves, my primary interest in cardistry is the playing cards themselves.
We’re talking packets of truly breathtaking visual design — everything from vibrantly colored abstract modern-art themes to calm expressionist motifs. Some designed to be fanned and create varied geometric designs, and others just single colors, made to be extra catchy to the eye when flipped over to its face.
There are high-end luxury decks made with thick, crushed paper, rimmed with foil and designed with ornate filigrees and other gothic design accents. And there are whimsical playing-card decks whose tuck cases look like juice boxes, complete with nutrition facts printed on the back.
Nathan Lex, co-creator of the Organic Playing Cards line, described the design aesthetic this way at the conference: “So that moms would pick them up at Target and think they’re cute and then share them with their friends, but also so cardists would recognize them as something special.”
This kind of inclusive mindset was apparent throughout the conference — an ethos that I had not expected going into what I had initially thought would be a boys-only event.
It’s true: Cardistry seems to appeal to a very specific slice of the population, mostly tattooed young men who, in their slouchy backpacks, oversized trucker hats and Vans skateboarding shoes, look like they’d be up for vandalizing your car.
But I was neither the only female, nor was I the oldest of the nearly 500 attendees. I met many parents who had accompanied their children — some as young as 8 — to the conference. Some people came from as far away as New Zealand and Brazil so that their kids could fling, slide, toss, launch and fan cards with the rest of us geeks who love making 2.5-by-3.5-inch pieces of pretty paper perform intricate and acrobatic ballet moves.
“I brought my son here because he’s crazy about cards, and he doesn’t have any friends at home to share this with,” one mom of a high school junior told me. “It’s been amazing to watch him be around other people who love the same thing.”
Love came up over and over again throughout the three-day jam session and buying frenzy that was sponsored by Dan and Dave Buck, skilled cardists and owners of Art of Play, the online curiosity shop.
I stood in a ballroom packed largely with self-described socially awkward loners — who were busily sharing tips, helping each other refine their shuffling technique and giving encouragement. All the guys (for now, there are but few female cardists) were incredibly supportive, quick to teach a move and instantaneous in their helping to pick up after the inevitable dropping of cards all over the floor.
By the end, after watching a boatload of incredible cardistry videos and talking to several parents who felt that their kids’ social skills and concentration in school had been enhanced by intense practice of cardistry moves, I sat and watched a 60-something dad who was there with his teen son.
Days before, he told me he’d never picked up a deck of cards other than to play card games. During the very last presentation, he was intensely concentrating on a custom-designed deck, awkwardly trying to sybil cut and swing it.
“I think I’m going to learn how to do some moves and surprise him,” he told me.
And I left Cardistry-Con, thankful that another student had been inspired and welcomed into the cardistry community.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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