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Fire dancing (also known as fire twirling, fire spinning, fire performance, or fire manipulation) is a group of performance arts or disciplines that involve manipulation of objects on fire. Typically these objects have one or more bundles of wicking, which are soaked in fuel and ignited.
Some of these disciplines are related to juggling or baton twirling (both forms of object manipulation), and there is also an affinity between fire dancing and rhythmic gymnastics. Fire dancing is frequently performed alongside fire eating and body-burning as part of a larger fire performance. Fire dancing is often performed to music. Fire dancing has been a traditional part of cultures from around the world, and modern fire performance often includes visual and stylistic elements from many traditions.
Fire dancing is a very dangerous performance art, and fire safety precautions should always be taken.
The various tools used by the fire performance community borrow from a variety of sources. Many have martial sources like swords, staves, and whips, where some seem specifically designed for the fire community. The use of these tools is limited only by the imagination of their users. Some tools lend themselves to rhythmic swinging and twirling, others to martial kata, and others to more subtle use. Some common tools are:
- Poi - A pair of roughly arm-length chains with handles attached to one end, and bundle of wicking material on the other.
- Staff - A metal or wooden tube ranging from 1–2 meters long with wicking material applied to one or both ends. Staffs are typically used individually or in pairs. juggling three or more is also possible.
- Fire hoop - hoop with spokes and wicking material attached.
- Fan - A large metal fan with one or more wicks attached to the edges.
- Fire umbrella - an umbrella-like performance prop that can be constructed in a variety of ways.
- Fire meteor - A long length of chain or rope with wicks, or small bowls of liquid fuel, attached to both ends.
- Nunchaku - Nunchaku with wicking material, usually at either end.
- Fire stick - Like a traditional devil stick, with wicks on both ends of the central stick.
- Torch - A short club or torch, with a wick on one end, and swung like Indian clubs or tossed end-over-end like juggling clubs.
- Fire knife - Short stave with blade attached to the end and wicking material applied to the blade. Fire knives are the traditional Polynesian fire implement and have been in use since the 1940s.
- Fire rope dart - A wick, sometimes wrapped around a steel spike, at the end of a rope or chain ranging from 6–15 feet long, with a ring or other handle on the opposite end.
- Fire sword - either a real sword modified for fire, or one specifically built for the purpose of fire shows.
- Chi ball/Fire orb - 2 rings or handles with a wick attached between them by a thin wire.
- Finger wands - Short torches attached to individual fingers.
- Palm torches - Small torches with a flat base meant to be held upright in the palm of the hand.
- Fire hip belt - A motorcycle chain belt with five spokes extending at equal intervals with wicking on the ends.
- Fire whip - Lengths of braided aramid fiber tapered to make a bullwhip, usually with a metal handle about 12 inches long.
- Fire rope/snake - Similar to poi, but has a short 3-5 inch chain attaching the handles to a 12 inch or longer kevlar rope.
Fire jump rope - A jump rope made of kevlar.
- Fire cannon - a propane flame effect device; larger ones can shoot a pillar of fire up to 200+ feet in the air, although they usually are mounted to a base or vehicle.
- Fire poofer - Similar to fire cannons, but much smaller and made to be held, with fuel stored in a "backpack" fashioned of one or more propane tanks.
- Fire ball - Specially constructed juggling balls, either solid balls dipped in fuel and juggled with protective gloves, or ones designed to contain the flame in the centre of the ball.
- Wearable fire- Headdresses, hip belts, arm bands, or other garments made typically of metal with kevlar torches attached. Can be worn while fire dancing.
The variety of available tools took a sharp swing upwards in 2000, and as the numbers of dedicated fire tool makers increased, many makers added their own ingenuity to the art and expand the performance potential even more. Frequently, new tools appear from home tinkering and enter the public domain.
Materials and construction
The typical construction of fire performance tools involves a metallic structure with wicking material made from fibreglass, cotton, or Kevlar blended with fibreglass, Nomex, and other poly-aramids. Kevlar-blend wicks are the most common, and are considered standard equipment in modern fire performance. Though most wick suppliers refer to their wick simply as Kevlar, almost no suppliers sell a 100% Kevlar wick, which is both expensive and not particularly absorbent. Most serious contemporary performers avoid cotton and other natural materials because such wicks disintegrate after relatively few uses, and can come apart during use, showering the performer and audience with flaming debris.
A typical poi construction would consist of a single or double-looped handle made of webbing, Kevlar fabric, or leather. This is connected to a swivel and a length of chain or cable. This chain or cable then connects to another swivel, and then to the wick, which is made out of tape wick (a wide, flat webbing made of wick material), or rope wick. The wick material is typically folded or tied to a central core in either a knot or lanyard-type fold.
The chain or cable can be anything from stainless steel wire rope (preferred by some for its low cost, light weight, high strength, and almost invisible profile, but not by others because it tangles easily) to dog chain (preferred by some for its heft and low cost) to industrial ball chain, which is the most common chain for fire performance equipment. Made of nickel-plated steel, stainless steel, or black-oxide brass, ball chain in the #13 to #20 size ranges provides excellent strength, a fluid feel, and great tangle prevention. Since every link on the chain swivels, one can eliminate dedicated swivels from a design, and body wrapping and chain wrapping moves become much easier. Extra cost and a higher weight to durability ratio are the biggest downsides to ball chain.
A fire staff typically consists of a long cylindrical section of either aluminium tube (lighter, more suitable for fast-spinning tricks) or wood (heavier, more suited to 'contact' moves in which the staff retains contact with the performer throughout the trick; see contact juggling) with a length of wick secured at either end, usually with screws. Modern contact staves are made from aluminum pipe with wooden dowels glued into the ends for weight. Wooden-cored staves often have thin sheet metal wrapped around the ends to prevent charring of the wood from the heat - this will have holes drilled through it to allow the wick to be screwed securely into the core. Wooden staves are rarely used anymore and are considered a safety hazard. A grip of some sort is usually fashioned in the center of the staff to provide a comfortable hand-hold - most commonly leather, or a soft, self-adhesive grip of a type designed for hockey sticks or tennis rackets.
Building high quality fire performance equipment involves the balancing of a number of factors to achieve performance suited for the specific intended use by the performer.
- Balance - Balance is how the weight is distributed in the implement. It is critical when making staffs, torches, hula hoops, clubs and swords, as balance will determine the axis around which the implement rotates.
- Weight- The lighter the poi or staff, the faster and easier it will spin. Also, heavy implements are more likely to lead to repetitive stress disorder, and cause injuries if you make mistakes. Heavier implements make certain types of contact juggling much easier, and certain high speed manipulation more difficult.
- Wick size - Generally, the more exposed surface area of wick on the prop, the larger the flame. More wick will increase the fuel the implement will hold and if wick is layered increase burn time. The prop will also be heavier, and more expensive to construct. The more fuel the prop holds the larger the increase in weight after fuelling.
- Cost - The fourth factor is cost. Frequently new prop development, and sometimes even building standard designs, require extra materials and tools that are not readily available. Even dedicated home tinkerers find themselves weighing the cost of purchasing versus the cost and time of build at home.
Nearly all modern fire dancing apparatus rely on a liquid fuel held in the wick. There are many choices for fuels, each differing in properties. Individuals select a fuel or a blend of fuels based on safety, cost, availability, and the desirability of various characteristics like colour of flame, heat of flame, and solubility. There are also geographic variances in fuels used, based on local availability, pricing and community perception. For example, American firespinners commonly use Naptha Petroleum (a common brand is made by the Coleman Company) or fuel blend whilst British fire spinners almost exclusively use paraffin oil (which the Americans call kerosene or lamp oil). Frequently, particularly in areas not fully industrialized, the fuel available is the residue from productions of more refined fuels. Travelling performers can find themselves spinning highly toxic, smokey, or carcinogenic fuels.
- Isoparaffin oil, some known types include Pegasol 3440 special, Shellsol T, Isopar G. MSDS lists them as Naphtha (petroleum), heavy alkylates. Performers seek isoparaffins with low aromatic, benzene and sulfur contents. These can be odourless, burn clean with little smoke and are available in a range of flash points. Little known or used in the US.
- White gas, also known as Coleman fuel, naphtha, or petroleum ether - This hot, volatile fuel is popular because it is easy to ignite, burns brightly, evaporates cleanly, and does not leave smoke or residues on wicks and bodies. However, it burns hot and quick, limiting the burn time, and potentially increasing the risk of burns. This is the preferred fuel for performers who do indoor shows in the US. Becoming increasingly more difficult to obtain in the US due to its alternate use in Meth-amphetamine production.
- Kerosene/paraffin oil - This is a popular fuel due to its low cost and long burn times. Kerosene is a generic term that covers a broad range of fuels ranging from gasoline to diesel fuel. It is normally a mixture of hydrocarbons. Almost every maker of kerosene has different purity standards and different flash points. Some home fuel oils are nearly pure paraffins (alkanes and iso-alkanes) whereas others are almost completely benzene and refinery residue.
- Lamp oil - Lamp oil is an oily, non-volatile fuel. Typically sporting the highest flash point of all the petrol distillates in liquid form, lamp oils are the most difficult to light and longest burning fuels. Many products sold as lamp oil contain a limited amount of non-alkane petrol distillates (benzene, et al.), and many have colourings and scent additives that have some toxic potential. Even the purest grades of lamp oil burn quite smokily (though less irritating and toxic), and thus make it preferred for outdoor use. The soot from burned lamp oil can be difficult to wash out of clothing. Ultra Pure Lamp Oil is the most popular fuel for fire beathing due to it being odorless, colorless, and tasteless. It is the safest fuel to use for fire breathing.
- Alcohol fuels are usually ethanol, methanol, or isopropyl. Industrial or lab alcohol is usually ethanol with methanol, acetone or other denaturing agents added. Denatured alcohols can be up to 95% ethanol, or as little as 50%. An MSDS sheet of the mixture will indicate the exact contents.
- Note: The flame is blue to orange, depending on methanol content, and fairly dim. However, when mixed with chemicals such as lithium chloride, copper chloride and boric acid, various colours of flame can be created. Lithium compounds produce pinks, copper compounds produce greens and blues, and boric acid produces green. Other chemicals may produce other colours, and performers often experiment with various choices. Use of chemicals like these may produce some toxic vapours, and have a tendency to destroy wicks. Due to the weak flame, price and toxicity of methanol, it is usually only used for coloured flame production and in mixes.
- Biodiesel - Biodiesel is a fuel produced by refinement or transesterification of vegetable oil (used or virgin) using methoxide composed of methanol and lye. Both KOH, potassium hydroxide and NaOH, sodium hydroxide can be used in the process but only one or the other, never both in the same batch. This produces glycerin and methyl esters, aka biodiesel. The fuel is designed for use in diesel vehicles, but is a fairly safe and practical fuel for fire performance. Like kerosene, it is difficult to ignite by itself, and produces a dim, long-lasting flame that may smell a bit like French fries, depending on the source. It is often mixed with white gas to produce an easy-to-ignite, long-burning fuel.
Burns: Metal parts on fire tools have a high heat transfer coefficient and may burn on contact; the wick has a lower coefficient and is less likely to cause burns directly, but can transfer fuel onto a performer if they hit themselves. This is why performers remove the excess fuel from their props before performing. Though burns don't often happen, performers always carry a first aid kit just in case.
Clothing: Costumes from non-flammable or flame retardant materials, such as leather or cotton, are preferred when employing fire; synthetic materials tend to melt when burned, resulting in severe burns to the wearer. Most fire spinners recommend wearing 100% natural fibers like cotton, wool, leather, silk and bamboo. Wearing treated fire-retardant clothing isn't near as safe since it will wash off over time.
Fire tools: All fire tools are checked before each performance or use to make sure there are no flaws, loose connections, frayed kevlar, or other problems.
Fire safety: When performing, a fire safety should always be present. A fire safety is someone who is trained to use the fuel dump, safety equipment, and has had hands on training on how to deal with situations such as a performer catching fire, crowd control, and stage management. The fire safety has a duvetyne or damp towel with them at all times during the performance. When the performer is finished and the tools are still lit, the safety places the duvetyne on the floor, the lit props are placed in the middle of the duvetyne, and the duvetyne is folded in onto the props to extinguish. The duvetyne is also used to put out fire on the performer if necessary. A fire extinguisher should never be used on a person.
Fuel Dump: A fuel dump is where the fuel is stored and where the equipment is fueled. The most recommended and safest fuel dump is called a double bucket system. A double bucket system consists of a five gallon bucket and lid with a one gallon metal pain can and lid inside. The fuel is stored in the paint can. When not fueling, the lids are kept on. If the paint can of fuel ever catches fire, the five gallon bucket lid is placed on and the fire extinguishes. The fuel dump is to be kept backstage, away from non-performers. An ABC Dry Chemical fire extinguisher should be kept next to the fuel dump at all times. Never put fuel in a plastic container. If the lid is off and the container catches, the plastic will melt and the fuel will be dispersed onto the ground. Never put fuel in a glass container. Glass breaks, and then you have fuel all over the ground.
Fueling: Once props are fueled, the performer squeezes off any extra fuel back into the fuel dump, or uses a spin off can to remove excess fuel. A spin off can is a separate paint can with handle that the performer places their poi in to hang an inch or two from the bottom of the can, and holds the chain and handle of the can together. The performer or safety then spins the can vertically in fast circles to collect any extra fuel into the spin off can. The extra fuel is then poured back into the fuel dump. By doing this, the performer eliminates the possibility of fuel spitting off during the performance.
Fire dancing using different techniques is a part of the historic culture of some areas of the world. The oldest practice of fire dancing is Samoa known as Siva Afi and fire knife. The fire knife dance has its roots in the ancient Samoan exhibition called "ailao" - the flashy demonstration of a Samoan warrior's battle prowess through artful twirling, throwing and catching, and dancing with a war club while on fire. The 'ailao could be performed with any warclub and some colonial accounts confirm that women also performed 'ailao at the head of ceremonial processions, especially daughters of high chiefs. During night dances torches were often twirled and swung about by dancers, although a warclub was the usual implement used for 'ailao. Ancient Aztecs performed a fire dance dedicated to Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of fire. The Aztec fire dance is performed today for tourists in Mexico. In Bali, the Angel Dance and the Fire Dance, regularly performed for tourists, have origins in ancient rituals. Both the Angel Dance and the Fire Dance originated in a trance ritual called the sanghyang, a ritual dance "performed to ward off witches at the time of an epidemic." Also known as the "horse dance" men perform the dance by holding rods representing horses, while leaping around burning coconut husks, and walking through the flames. French Polynesia, Antigua, Cuba and Saint Lucia are other locations where fire dances are recreated for tourists. The Siddha Jats of the Thar Desert in India perform traditional fire dances as part of the Spring festival. Fire dancing is performed to music played on drums and the behr. There are variations of the fire dancing; men often perform a dance that involves walking on hot coals, while women perform a dance while balancing flaming tin pots on their heads. Today this ritual is often performed for tourists.
Modern developments in fire performance
During the period from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, fire dancing grew from a relatively obscure and marginalized native tradition, and a talent and skill of the baton twirler or circus artist, to a widespread and almost commonplace occurrence at raves, rock concerts, night clubs, beach parties, camping festivals, cabarets and hotel shows. The Burning Man festival has also attributed to the growth and awareness of fire dancing with its fire-oriented art. Another powerful force was the rise of internet chat and bulletin board cultures, which allowed aspiring dancers in isolated areas to communicate with the then-limited pool of skilled performers far outside of their geographic confines.
As the number of fire dancers increases, more performance art concepts are brought into existence expanding outside of traditional dances. Individual performers and fire troupes use expand the culture of fire performance. The following is an incomplete list of such show varieties, whose categories are general and tend to overlap.
- Traditional fire shows: Traditional shows often incorporate Polynesian costuming and other cultural elements. Many conform to the guidelines or are inspired by the annual World Fireknife Competition and Samoa Festival.
- Standard modern shows: These usually include performers in tight and perhaps even risqué costumes with face paint, performing with fire spinning tools. Such shows often include fire breathing as well.
- Fire theatre: Such shows are theatrical shows which include fire and fire performance as elements of staged dramatic presentations. Often the fire performance is a small element of the larger show. These shows tend to use more elaborate props and costuming and can focus less on technical skill.
- Fire fetish show: Such shows are recognizable by more overt sexuality in the performance and often extremely risqué costuming, nudity, and implied or actual sexual contact between performers, and are often seen as a fusion between exotic dancing or burlesque with fire dancing. Thus, fire fetish refers to a particular style of performance, and not a sexual fetish on the part of the performer, as would pyrophilia.
- Erotic fire show: Such shows may be seen as simply a normal improvised fire dance but with emphasis on sexually arousing body gyrations, seductive facial expressions, an eroticised musical selection (such as R&B or downtempo music), and minimal clothing of the performer, thus promoting sexual arousal or desire in addition to the expected visual entertainment for an audience. Unlike a fire fetish show, this performance is generally more low-key, slower in tempo, and may be performed by a solo dancer in front of a small and select audience, often a spouse or romantic partner. This performance can be an active and visually exciting form of ritual foreplay. However this type of show is enticing to a select audience.
- Ritual fire show: Such shows are usually a fusion of pagan or occult ceremony with fire and fire performance. They focus less on technical skill, and more on the use of the fire dancer to highlight the ritual or represent the specific element of fire.
- Fire and belly dance: Such shows are a fusion of Middle Eastern belly dancing (raqs sharqi) and combine elements of fire dancing and belly dancing. Often the dancers use palm torches and fire swords made to resemble scimitars. The Dancing Fire dance company was the first to fuse fire and belly dance.
- Fire comedy jugglers combine juggling, fire and comedy. This can include lighting parts of their body on fire.
Other performance variations continue to emerge as fire dancing becomes more widespread and commonplace.
- Cirque du Soleil incorporated contemporary fire dance techniques for the first time in its Zaia production in Macau (2008—2012). Previous Cirque du Soleil shows Alegria and O relied on the skills of traditional fire knife artists for fire performances. Recognition of contemporary fire dance and modern prop techniques has previously been very limited in the professional circus community. Dan Miethke worked as lead fire artist and fire coach in Zaia.
Fire arts education
Around the world there are organized events teaching fire arts and object manipulation. Fire dance festivals, workshops and retreats are growing in frequency and popularity particularly in the USA, Canada and Australia. Widely taught disciplines include poi, staff(s) and hula-hoop.
- Beltane Fire Festival
- Dexterity play
- Devil sticks
- Fire triangle
- Fire troupe
- Flame projector
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