Get a Hobby! Fire Dancing
Author: Kyla Sterling
I've hit myself in the face with flaming poi on more than one occasion…
Ashlyn Sindal Sedai is a fire dancer, and she’d like to share her hobby with us.
So what is fire dancing, exactly? I'm picturing the Hawaiian performers who have fire at the end of a string and do a lot of impressive whirling around…
Fire dancing is an umbrella term for any dancing that involves prop manipulation with flaming props. There are a number of different types of fire dancing props, including fans, hula hoops, flow wands, swords, and staffs. I've even seen a couple people do contact juggling with flaming balls, which is seriously cool to watch. Fire dancing props usually involve one or more wicks (usually Kevlar-wrapped cotton) soaked in fuel and lit.
The type you mention, with the flaming balls on the ends of string (on chain, actually, since string would burn), are fire poi, which is one kind of fire dancing tool I use. Poi dance, with non-flaming weighted balls on tethers, originated with the Maori people of New Zealand and is part of traditional Maori dance. Fire dancing is thought to have originated with the Aztecs, and then spread to other cultures and regions of the world. I don't know when the two intersected and the first fire poi came about, but it started to become a widely practiced performance art sometime in the 1990's.
Oh, wow! So fire dancing isn't just from one place - or even one region. It's a mix of different cultures' art forms. How did you first find out about it? Did you attend a performance?
In college, I took a really great literature class, and everyone in my section got along really well. At the end of the class, one of the other students in my section said that she had a gift for us for all of the great discussions we had. Her gift was a fire poi performance. I'd been interested in dance and took classes when I was young and again in high school, but that was the first time I'd ever seen anyone dance with fire, and I was completely awestruck.
About how long have you been fire dancing, and about how old where you when you started to learn? How old is the average beginner? Is there ever a time when it's "too late?" (Or do people think there is?)
I've been fire dancing for about 10 years, so since my mid-20's.
These days, I'd say the average beginner is probably in their late teens or early 20's, but I did a show once where the youngest performer was 3 (he did a duet with his dad) and the oldest was in her 90's. As with any other form of dance, someone who starts at a younger age is going to have an advantage, but there's really no such thing as too late!
That's good to know! (I was asking for a friend......) So once you've started fire dancing, then what? Do you perform at festivals? Is there a competitive aspect? What are the opportunities for performance and competition?
There are fire dancing festivals, and other festivals where fire dancing is a big thing, and I've performed at several. I've also performed in organized fire dancing shows, at weddings, at parties, and even at one city Christmas tree lighting ceremony. I've also heard that in places where the wildfire danger isn't quite so high as it is here, it's not uncommon to see fire dancers at Renaissance Faires and the like. There aren't a lot of formal performance opportunities for fire dancers, but it's pretty easy to make performance opportunities, since fire performance can be an impressive and unique thing to have at your event.
There are a few fire dancing competitions throughout the world, but I've never competed in any. From what I understand, they tend to be more focused on the technical aspects of prop manipulation than on the dance aspect.
Is is possible to make a career out of this hobby? (And have you thought about it?)
It's definitely possible. I know several people who have made careers out of fire performance and teaching fire dance. The thing about making a career out of fire dance, though, is that you can't just get by on your performance skill. You have do all of your own marketing, and because fire dancing is relatively unknown, a lot of the time you have to make your own market. You also have to learn the legalities of fire dancing in your area (in the U.S., fire laws differ by city, so this can be a lot of work) and be prepared to argue with authorities who don't know the specific laws but try to shut you down because they think what you're doing looks dangerous and therefore must or should be illegal. I do occasionally take paid gigs, and I charge or trade for lessons, but I know I don't have the patience or people skills to make fire dancing my career. I'm super impressed by those who do, though!
Okay, so the career part sounds pretty intense. Who'd have guessed there would be legal research involved in fire dancing! But performing at Renaissance Faires and weddings sounds pretty awesome. If I were going to start fire dancing, what should I do? Do I read a book? Or take a class? Or can I just start practicing in my backyard and start setting things on fire when I get good enough to be safe? Does it help to have a background in dance?
A lot of people start out learning off of videos on the internet. Eventually, though, it really helps to have personal instruction, either through a class or at a festival, or even through an online class. A teacher can give feedback you can't get from practicing on your own, and it's definitely a good idea to have someone experienced around the first time you work with fire.
When I first got interested in poi, I spent some time learning off of internet tutorials, but eventually I decided I wanted to take a class. I signed up for a class at Temple of Poi in San Francisco, and I ended up taking classes there for several years, in both poi and fire fans.
Having a background in dance definitely helps when it comes to performance, but I'm not sure it helps much with the actual prop manipulation. I also know a ton of great performers who don't have any background in dance at all, so while it's a help, it's not a necessity by any means.
Excellent. So I'm going to start fire dancing...how often should I practice? And what about once I'm a pro? Do I practice more?
Every day. The exact length of time is going to vary from person to person and on the specific props they use (poi and heavy fans, for example, can cause repetitive stress injuries if you don't rest your hands often enough), but I'd say at least an hour or two a day, spread throughout the day. For someone just starting out, I still usually recommend practicing every day, but only for 10-15 minutes. Consistency of practice is really much more important in the long run than total amount of time spent practicing.
So it's a fair time commitment, then - have to keep those muscles ready to go. Now, I know there are lots of hobbies that cost a significant amount of money to start - is fire dancing a fairly inexpensive hobby, or is getting the proper equipment going to break the bank?
Equipment cost depends a lot on the type of tool you use. You can get decent practice poi for under $25 and a good practice hoop for only a little more, but good fire poi will run you close to $100, and a good fire hoop nearly twice that. Fire fans are a bit less expensive, but practice fans are nearly as expensive as fire fans. If you treat your tools well, though, they should last quite some time.
Costumes are where you can end up sinking a lot of money, but time and sewing skills really help out there. Because you're working with fire, your costumes need to be entirely made out of natural fabrics, because polyesters and other man-made fabrics catch fire and melt easily. If you want to buy premade all cotton/leather/silk outfits, that's going to be a pretty significant cost. But, if you have the time to scour thrift stores and discount fabric outlets for natural fabrics (secondhand t-shirts are a great source of fabric for fire dancing costumes!), and you know your way around a sewing machine well enough to do something with it, you don't have to spend a ton.
That's always good! A little ingenuity can go a long way! So let's go back to your relationship with your hobby - do you have any personal goals for yourself with fire dancing?
My main goal is to have fun, and to keep learning new things. I love the way fire dancing allows me to connect with music and with my body, and that connection is my primary focus in my practice.
Do people have any misconceptions about your art, and how would you correct them?
People tend to think fire dancing is far more dangerous than it actually is. In a sense, that's a boon from a performance standpoint, because it means that audiences are really impressed by fire dancing, but it also makes people nervous about having fire performances near their homes or businesses, and I think it probably turns away people who might otherwise want to learn. With proper safety protocols in place, the danger is really minimal. The wicks don't even burn hot enough to burn skin as long as there's no prolonged contact. I've hit myself in the face with flaming poi on more than one occasion and never caused any injury.
For someone who's as big of a klutz as I am, that's very reassuring! If people are interested in learning more, do you have any books/websites/videos you'd send them to?
Home of Poi (homeofpoi.com) probably has the best collection of free fire prop video lessons on the web, and they also have a great collection of instructional DVDs and props for sale. For anyone near San Francisco or interested in more in-depth video lessons, check out Temple of Poi (templeofpoi.com). For anyone interested in fire fans or hoops, Trick Concepts (trickconcepts.com) has some really great fire fans and hoops, and absolutely the best practice fans I've ever used. If you're interested in prop manipulation, but don't feel like fire is quite your thing, Flowtoys (flowtoys.com) makes really nice LED props. It's also the best place to get flow wands and flow wand instructional DVDs, since one of the Flowtoys owners invented them!
Thank you, Ashlyn Sedai, for taking the time to answer my questions! You've given me (and our readers) a lot of great information about a beautiful art form!
If you have a hobby you’d like to see featured in a future article, please PM Kyla Sterling!