Kate Riegle van West

Dr Kate Riegle van West is the Founder and CEO of SpinPoi, a social enterprise taking the health benefits of poi to the world. A former circus performer, Kate has found a unique way to blend her passions for performance, wellbeing and science into a successful business doing social good. She is also a recipient of a Future Leader Award from the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Dr Kate Riegle van West is as passionate about doing handstands as she is about her academic research.

Which is not to say her PhD was child’s play. In fact, her study into the health benefits of poi won the Faculty of Creative Arts & Industries Prize for Best Doctoral Thesis in 2018.

Born in a small town near Chicago, Kate spent the first half of her career as a circus performer and trapeze artist. She credits her first ringmaster Dr Tom Romance as one of her most influential mentors, along with her parents, her school librarian, and her PhD supervisor Professor Cathy Stinear.

“He (Tom, the ringmaster) cultivated a non-competitive, inclusive, fun space for children of all ages and abilities to push their limits and truly shine,” Kate says.

“Even if I fell during a show in front of the whole audience, it was OK to fail. You just pick yourself up with a salute to the crowd and a positive attitude, and simply try again.”

And so Kate did. She became hooked on poi when she spotted a fellow circus performer spinning balls on the end of string.

“I couldn’t believe how spinning a ball on the end of a rope in circles made my brain and body feel so amazing,” Kate says. “It changed everything and I wanted to share it with the world.”

Kate began teaching workshops in Chicago and noticed the positive effects poi had on her students.

“I wanted to bring poi to places like hospitals, aged care, and rehab centres, but people naturally began to ask what evidence I had to substantiate poi as a therapeutic tool. And I was curious too. I couldn’t find any rigorous research on poi and health.”

So Kate quit a plum job as a program coordinator at Harvard University to study the poi in its spiritual homeland. Her PhD is the first scientific study in the world to investigate the effects of poi on physical and cognitive function.

Seventy-nine healthy older adults participated in the double-blind randomized controlled trial. After one month of poi practice, Kate demonstrated statistically significant improvements in grip strength, balance, and sustained attention.

“Poi is a precious Māori taonga, and its benefits have long been experienced and celebrated in Aotearoa. My ambition has always been for clinical research on poi and health to add to mātauranga Māori to create a strong foundation for poi as a therapeutic tool.”

By an uncanny coincidence her PhD supervisor, Professor Cathy Stinear, is a former circus performer herself. She is also the Deputy Head of the Department of Medicine and the Director for the Centre for Brain Research.

“Before beginning my studies, I had no formal experience working in the fields of health, doing scientific research, or running a business. I asked Cathy if I should take any classes related to health and medicine and how to actually conduct a clinical trial. She said: "Nah, you'll learn as you go along."

“I remember being taken aback but also empowered by her confidence and belief in me. That really allowed me to flourish.”

Through her social enterprise SpinPoi, Kate is able to share the joy and magic of poi with everyone from pre-schoolers to professionals, seniors and healthcare workers and she is growing a team of certified poi instructors to take her workshops around the globe.

“I also have a goal to learn how to do a one-handed handstand. I’ve been practicing for 20 years, but I think I am finally getting closer!”