Fire performance is a group of performance arts or disciplines that involve manipulation of objects on fire. Typically these objects have one or more wraps of wick, which are soaked in fuel and ignited.
Fire performance includes skills which are based on juggling, baton twirling and poi swinging and other forms of object manipulation. It also includes skills such as fire breathing, fire eating and body burning; sometimes called fakir skills. Fire performance has various styles of performance including fire dancing; the use of fire as a finale skill in an otherwise non-fire performance; and the use of fire skills as 'dangerous' stunts. Performances can be done as choreographed routines to music (this type being related to dance or rhythmic gymnastics); as freestyle (performed to music or not) performances; or performed with vocal interaction with the audience. Fire performance, or at least some of the skills that form part of it, has been a traditional part of cultures from around the world.
Fire performance is a very dangerous performance art, and fire safety precautions should always be taken.
Fire performance using different techniques is a part of the historic culture of some areas of the world. The oldest practice of fire performance 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 war club 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
Since the mid-1990s fire performance has grown in popularity. This growth has occurred both in the hobby and professional areas of the skill. Fire skills have become widespread at raves, nightclubs, beach parties, and music festivals. The Burning Man festival has also attributed to the growth and awareness of fire performance with its fire-oriented art. Fire performance has become increasingly popular as entertainment at corporate events, street festivals, celebration events and as a precursor to firework displays.
Fire performance varieties
The increase in availability of fire props and the growth in fire performance has contributed to an increase in the variety of way that fire skills are performed.
- 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.
- Modern fire shows: These shows vary greatly from performances choreographed to music to street style shows with varying levels of audience interaction and participation. Modern fire shows can use a very wide range of fire skills and props.
- 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.
- 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 performance is usually performed with props that have specifically been made for the purpose. Fire torches, fire staffs, fire poi, fire hula hoops, fire whips, and other fire props are all readily available.
- 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. The whip can be cracked to create large plumes of fire.
- Fire flogger - A traditional BDSM flogger with kevlar tails. Can be used for both performance and temperature play
- 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.
Nearly all modern fire performance apparatus rely on a liquid fuel soaked in the wick. There are many choices for fuels, which differ in their specific properties. Fire performers 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 fire performers commonly use White Gas (or Coleman fuel) a Naptha Petroleum or fuel blend whilst British fire spinners almost exclusively use paraffin oil (which Americans call kerosene or lamp oil).
Fire performance skills are inherently dangerous and only careful use of the props, storage of the fuel and performance in appropriate spaces will mean that the risks are minimised. Fire insurance policies all require fire performers to carry fire extinguishers, fire blankets or other fire safety equipment to deal with possible problems.
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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