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NEW SPIN OLD TREND

Yo-yo'ing is all the rage, with deluxe models and deified masters. And hey, it's good, clean fun.

In a suburban house ringed by golf greens in Plant City, at a rec center off a clogged thoroughfare in Brandon, on a mall concourse in St. Petersburg, the faithful gather.

They carry what they need in their pocket. Or a $39.95 deluxe bag.

The beginners watch the masters in awe. The masters temper cockiness with a willingness to teach.

Soon discs on strings are rocketing overhead, arcing in dramatic orbits and sometimes flying loose to smack against a wall.

Yo-yo'ing, a pastime as old as civilization, has come back. Its revival has been launched by technology: ball-bearings and hyperspeed, anodized aluminum and neon rubber.

"They run up to the yo-yos like dogs _ with big eyes and hands on the glass," Mike Seekins, manager of Kitty Hawk Kites in Tyrone Square Mall, says of his young customers.

Who wouldn't want to add racy beauties like Viper and Cold Fusion and Brain Teaser to a private collection? Or master tricks like Brain Twister or Split the Atom?

With four months' worth of Fridays spent at yo-yo meetings in Brandon, 11-year-old Jon-Ryan Johnson is on a quest for a T-shirt. A Team Yomega T-shirt.

If he can complete 30 or so tricks, he will join the three dozen Team Yomega members in Brandon. They wear the uniform of success: burgundy T-shirt, khaki shorts or pants.

"It's the best thing I've seen for the kids. It gets them focused and there's a reward at the end," says Jon-Ryan's mother, Kathleen Johnson. "To get one of the burgundy shirts is a big thing at my house."

At tonight's session at the Brandon Recreation Center, more than 80 yo-yo'ers work their stuff. During the school year, the numbers have topped 200.

The parents who bring their children to the Brandon Pro Spinner Club meeting pull up folding chairs around the perimeter of the room, out of range.

"No yo-yo," directs David Brunner, instructing the club members to sit for presentation of certificates and to keep their yo-yos still. Brunner, a Tampa police officer, helped found the Brandon club. He manages spinner clubs throughout Florida for HPK Marketing, which sponsors the yo-yo clubs.

At a table near the rec center's entrance, there are Snakes and Cobras and Fireballs for sale. The Yomega Sling, which holds 12 yo-yos in a zippered case, costs $24.60.

Austin Diaz, a fifth-grader at Yates Elementary, is awarded his burgundy shirt.

"I have a yo-yo in my hand the whole time" at home, he says. "It's really fun. You can travel. You can win all kinds of stuff."

Club members form a large circle to perform tricks called out to taped music.

"Creeper!"

Dozens of yo-yos roll out across the floor, then return, still on the ground.

"Elevator!"

Dozens of yo-yos grab a string stretched vertically between two hands to travel upward.

Three girls, vastly outnumbered, step back from the circle to consult.

"We like to learn tricks," says Amanda Ellefsen, 9, who has brought her friends Chantal Quintana and Tiffany Shank in hopes of increasing the girl count.

Toward the end of the meeting, those ready to be tested form lines opposite Team Yomega members. Each yo-yo'er gets three chances to successfully perform a trick.

Most of the kids are about 8 to 14 years old. The only adult is Larry Kutno, who works as a food service company representative. During his test, he flubs his Man on the Flying Trapeze.

Kutno confesses he doesn't practice much. His 10-year-old son, Jason, is another story. Jason, he says, "gave up Nintendo for the summer for this."

The yo-yo'ing fad might be just another case of baby boomers introducing their own children to favorites from the past, were it not for one niggling detail.

There ain't never been a yo-yo like this.

In the early 1990s, the sport was revolutionized by the introduction of the ball-bearing, trans-axle yo-yo. The string is not attached directly to the axle but looped to a nylon or steel ball-bearing, which gives a much longer spin time.

For a simple sleeper, for example, the yo-yo holds its spin at the bottom of the string three times as long as the old-time yo-yos. The extra time allows even beginners to perform complicated tricks.

And for a complicated trick, you want more than any old yo-yo.

There's the Terminator Tornado from Spintastics, and the $40 cutaway Mag from Custom Yo, which reveals the string wound inside. Tom Kuhn's SB-2 (Silver Bullet 2) boasts an electrolyte finish, and Moose, the leading brand in Australia, puts a black string on its Gold Atom 7000. Bandai's X-Brain boasts a four-arm centrifugal clutch for under $10. A model from Came Yo uses a ratchet, so each click adjusts the gap for the string by half the thickness of a human hair.

Web site photographs and descriptions read like car ads:

Henry's top-of-the-line Coral Snake "features extra-large aluminum hubs and air-cushioned rubber power rings. Fitted with the "Speed Explosion' high-speed bearing axle as standard to give really long sleepers and optimum regeneration. Available in red, green or orange with silver finish hubs."

But does it come with floor mats?

The yo-yo was simpler once upon a time.

It likely originated in China but its first mention was in Greece in 500 B.C. To relieve tension on the way to the guillotine during the French Revolution, the history says, some doomed members of the French aristocracy played with glass or ivory "emigrettes."

Filipino businessman Pedro Flores brought the yo-yo to the United States in the 1920s, and Donald F. Duncan Sr. bought the rights. Yo-yos swept the country in the 1930s, and when plastic yo-yos were introduced in the 1960s, a record 45-million a year were sold.

In 1968, Abbie Hoffman "walked the dog" before the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities investigating him. Richard Nixon yo-yo'ed on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1974. And a yo-yo went on the space shuttle Discovery in 1985 as part of the Toys in Space project. They found that a yo-yo could be thrown and then move slowly along the string, but it refused to sleep without the downward force of gravity.

There is a national YoYo Museum in Chico, Calif., where those who remain nostalgic for a no-frills wooden yo-yo can see the world's largest, weighing 256 pounds and standing 50 inches tall.

Yo-yo champ Joshua van Dalen lives in Plant City in an archetypal new Florida home, with high ceilings and open floor plan. He needs the room.

The lanky 17-year-old frequently lets a yo-yo or two fly. He leaps over the string like a lariat and does two-handed loops. His father says all they've lost is a single light bulb.

Van Dalen is revered at yo-yo clubs. He took second place in Rhode Island last month in one-handed freestyle, which requires a three-minute routine to music and is scored on everything from showmanship to number of tricks completed. He won first place in the Florida State Yo-Yo Championship in March in two-handed competition. At the end of next week he'll represent the state in the 1999 World Yo-Yo Championship in Hawaii.

Van Dalen often caps a two-handed routine by using the force of the spin to break the strings, catching a freed yo-yo in each hand.

One of the most difficult moves, he says, is Shoot the Moon. The yo-yo moves forward, back, then up over the head, tracing a V-shape. "It's really hard because you're denying gravity and the motion of our hand has to be perfect to keep the yo-yo straight or it will go crooked and fall," Joshua says.

His mom usually travels with him to competitions, with the thousands it can cost coming out of the family budget. If Joshua places, he might get a T-shirt and a gift certificate for yo-yo merchandise.

Joshua's father, Henry van Dalen, is philosophical: "We have always gotten involved in everything our kids are interested in."

Love of performing appears to be genetic. His mother, Gloria, works part time as the character Chip at Disney World. Joshua's uncle, Dennis McBride, was a yo-yo world champion in the 1950s, and his instructional videos are still touted as some of the best.

Joshua has been at this for about two years now. At a Bell Shoals Baptist Church summer camp, he yo-yo'd in the talent show. "Everybody loved it. They'd never seen anything like it." Soon he and David Brunner, a fellow church member, hooked up with HPK Marketing to start a club.

Joshua gives demonstrations at stores and shopping centers all over the country as a member of Team High Performance, the highest ranking for a competitive yo-yo'er. There are about 80 THP players worldwide.

The uncle who got him started still sends him collectible yo-yos and the occasional bag of 1,000 strings.

Joshua wonders how long the yo-yo craze will last. Some say it reached Florida late and has already peaked.

A devoted yo-yo'er often jokes he has the world on a string. Some adults keep a yo-yo at their desk, to play with while they fidget. College students yo-yo to take a break from studying. Parents say it's good for children's hand-eye coordination.

Besides, who could resist a Dog Bite, when a spinning yo-yo "bites" your pants? Who could resist an Eiffel Tower?

Not yo.

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