Fire Dancers illuminate a dangerous form of self-expression and beauty.
Story by Charmaine Ng
Photos by Rochelle Riva Bargo
Handling fire is no simple task. Just ask Eugene resident Jacob Anderson, who had been dancing with the blazing substance for a year when he decided to undertake a fresh challenge. After a year of incorporating fire breathing into his routine, he recounts, “I caught my face on fire. You can see this little scar here,” pointing to his upper lip, “but it actually extends down the side of my neck, which is more visible when I shave,” he says chuckling. “I stopped breathing after that.”
For many, the title “fire dancer” conjures up a series of images: a foreign beauty seductively slinking around as flames rhythmically swirl around her exposed skin; a massive man, plastered in tattoos and piercings, twisting his arms as he toys with torches and then suddenly releases a pillar of fire from his mouth into the open air.
Anderson challenges these stereotypes. With a thin layer of scruff on his face and a plain black hooded jacket keeping him warm, he looks like any other college-aged student. But as he begins performing, Anderson clearly has another story to tell.
To those outside of the fire dancing community, it seems like one of the world’s most dangerous forms of self-expression and entertainment. Sustaining a burn is a constant possibility, but professional performers know exactly what they’re doing. From stage curtains to their own outfits, they are conscious of any type of fabric worn or used during a performance. Dancers never decorate their bodies in synthetic fibers, since it would melt over bare skin if caught on fire. Instead, they usually don cotton or leather, sprayed with flame retardant. While groups always maintain a permit with the local fire department, they also have extinguishers and buckets of water ready at a second’s notice.
Asraiya Deyo, a member of Spinergy Arts’ Seattle branch, has been in the profession for the past thirteen years. After graduating with a degree in theater, fed up with traditional plays, she packed up her bags and ran away to the circus. Once she mastered torches, she eased into blowing and eating fire. When it comes to safety, she stresses the importance of respecting the fire. “The moment you think you have power over it it’ll burn you, and then you’re humbled.”
During a show, the audience, mesmerized by the spectacle, often fails to notice the performers’ chosen tools. What exactly is on fire? A range of equipment is used to amaze the crowd, but the most common instrument is poi, a ball of wicking material attached to the end of a chain. The tradition of swinging around a pair of poi stems from the Maori tribes of New Zealand. Both Maori men and women practiced dancing with poi to increase their flexibility, strength, and coordination in battle and weaving, respectively. Performers also use staffs constructed of Kevlar wick joined to each end of an aluminum pole. Twirling them around the body produces a similar effect to poi’s, but for some, their movement can be easier to control and slow down.
Beyond New Zealand, fire demonstrations can be found around the world. Dive into a massive party in Thailand, or roam around the beaches of Hawaii–performers are wowing spectators with fire almost everywhere. However, the practice isn’t only about playing with danger for an audience’s pleasure.
For Kris Manaois, co-founder of Eugene-based troupe Earth DescenDance, it represents an ancestral history that he has never shied away from. “Ever since I was born into my family, we did Polynesian dance with Hawaiian dancing. ‘Nifo oti’ is the Samoan term, which is translated to ‘Samoan fire knife,’ or more like the ‘deadly tooth,’ which was used for battle and weaponry,” he shares. Whether you employ poi, knives, or hoops, the influence of tradition is undeniable. It’s present in every swish of the hips, every flick of the wrist.
Some, like Edie Bernhardt, choose fire dancing to exercise artistic skill. As a lifelong dancer and part of Deyo’s group in Spinergy Arts, she desires more focus on movement than flashy trickery. “I like choreographing pieces to music and I like pieces that tell a story,” she says. “Audiences appreciate something a little bit more cohesive, with themes, story lines, and costumes.” While she devotes a night a week to group practices, and more if they have an upcoming show, balancing an occupation with her passion isn’t easy. Bernhardt wishes her schedule allowed her to dedicate more time and energy to fire dancing. After spending a workday managing an office in a company that produces wooden instrument parts, she can’t wait to let loose. “I wanna run around, let off some steam!” she exclaims. However, with a heavy sigh, she laments, “It’s a catch-22. You want to make a living with your art, but you can’t quit your day job.”
Others tie fire dancing to their beliefs. Deyo bemoans the trend of acts with a sensual tone. Her soft voice thickens with passion as she relates; “To me, it’s always been more about spirituality and mythologies. I’ve always wanted to portray some token of enlightenment for the audience, to see the beauty in us and themselves.” Meanwhile, whirling around poi bonds, Anderson associates fire dancing with communicating to a higher being. “Spinning poi is as close as I’m going to get to God,” he says. “When I spin poi, it creates the algorithm, that equation that essentially describes our entire universe.” He acknowledges that his views are uncommon, but continues, “Mathematically, there are only certain things that I can do with them. And to understand how to get my body and poi to react to those things is a beautiful symphony.”
While everyone dances for different reasons, they all feel tied to the medium itself. Manaois thinks that fire, as an uncontrollable component of nature that simultaneously frightens and challenges humans. “What attracts people, and me of course, is being able to manipulate an element that can hurt and harm you, yet we take for granted every day,” he says. “One in five members of our audience will have a lighter or a matchbook in their pocket. That right there can create devastation, but can also create harmonious interactions.” For Lily Supardan, one-third of a Seattle-based fire-dancing group called Womanipura, the sound of the flame instantly pulled her in. She exclaims, “I heard it and thought to myself, ‘I gotta do that!’” As a former body builder and someone who labels herself a “fitness drill sergeant,” Supardan says it felt natural to progress into an intense discipline that intertwines the entire physical form with fiery objects.
Ever since relocating from the Bay Area to Eugene five years ago, Manaois has observed the steady growth of the fire dancing community. “A couple handfuls of people were creating groups, and now you can find them in nooks and crannies in Eugene and all over the Northwest, especially with the younger crowd,” he remarks, somewhat amazed. He also sees a collaborative effort across all of Oregon to share skills and experiences. Take the Oregon Country Fair’s fire show, where he has participated with his group. “Hundreds of people show up to perform, and thousands of people watch. Within those hundreds of people performing, all these entertainers come together.”
Nobody can confidently pinpoint why fire dancing has spread throughout the Northwest. Some speculate that it all started with the rise in influence of the Burning Man festival. The founders and attendees gather every year during the week before and through Labor Day weekend in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, to celebrate progressive, unconventional forms of self-expression and art. Bernhardt first witnessed fire dancing at Burning Man in 2001, where “something clicked in my brain: ‘That’s what I need to do. I know I can do that. I’m going to learn how to do that,’” she recalls. “There’s a huge conflux of fire artists that go there … out there, anything goes.” Manaois even goes so far as to declare the annual event a “Mecca” for fire fanatics.
Some guess that fire dancing’s appeal lies in their environment’s ideology. Anderson proposes, “That’s the big thing, the fact that you’re on a coast. There’s more of a mixing pot of people going on. The main thing about the Northwestern region is one, we’re more liberal in general … A lot of flashy, flamboyant things will happen on the West Coast that won’t on the East Coast,” he points out. “Burning Man came out of a cultural uprising anyways, so if you get down to the bare roots, it all comes back to culture and demographics.”
The enthusiasm surrounding this craft is palpable all over the world. From Australia to Germany, fire dancing groups entice members into the community and are building a legion of admirers. Although the expertise has evolved away from customary dress and moves, the core of the trade will always focus on the captivating element of fire. The thrill of danger tests the artist’s physical and mental boundaries. As Supardan puts it, “Anyone can dance around, but it takes passion, skill, and fearlessness to be able to pull off dancing with fire.”