Fire is not static.
It moves and consumes.
It produces change.
It appears to be alive.
It is a creative force.
On the morning of June 24, 2009, the historic Hub Ballroom in Edelstein burned to the ground. Just days later, Kep’s Place, a popular sports bar in Washington, went up in smoke. Fire destroys. We live in fear of its scorching flames and purchase insurance to guard against destruction. We associate fire with death, damage and disfiguration; we think of Hell, Sodom and Gommorah, fire and brimstone.
Yet fire can also be a creative force. Our very lives depend on the fire of the sun. It is nature’s tool for revitalization, emptying the land for new growth. The flow of molten lava destroys all in its path, but sets the stage for subsequent flourishing. In the Bible, the Creator is manifested as a burning bush or pillar of fire.
The ability to control fire was a revolutionary step for civilization. It allowed us to cook food and stay warm. It helped us forge and shape the tools of agriculture and defense.
Fire is one of the four classic elements of ancient Greek philosophy. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mortals. Tellingly, the Greeks distinguished the destructive fire of Hades from the creative fire of Hephaestus.
The Breath of Hephaestus
We’ve all experienced moments of infatuation with fire-it’s a primal instinct in the collective unconscious. We gather around campfires, entranced as the flames lick the sky. We celebrate the birth of our country with loud, colorful explosions.
Cultures from the dawn of civilization have used fire for creative expression. Elephant herders in India spun flaming torches in one of the oldest known instances of fire performance. Persian history cites fire bowls used in belly dancing. The ancient art of fire breathing may well explain the archetype of the fire-breathing dragon.
In the mid-1990s, fire performance began to grow out of relative obscurity. Rave culture, the Burning Man Festival and the rise of the Internet exposed a new generation to this unique form of expression. Tradition engaged with experimentation as fire performers put new ideas and equipment to work, creating hybrid forms of performance art.
The range of fire performance is all over the map, from swallowing and breathing fire to spinning fire using a variety of objects, such as poi balls, staves and hula hoops. Some performers incorporate elaborate props, costumes and face paint. Others emphasize the theatrical element. Some are overtly risqué. The performance is limited only by the imagination of the performer.
Rising from the Underground
"From the moment I heard the ‘whoosh’ of fire spinning around me, drowning out all other sounds, I knew I was hooked!" A student at Bradley University, Mitch Davidovitz was first introduced to the fire arts in 2000, but did not encounter them again until five years later at a festival in southern Illinois, where he was able to try it out for himself. Soon, he was practicing his own fire spinning techniques.
About that time, Davidovitz met fellow Bradley student David Van Roeyen and a young Colorado native, Chris Brimberry. Brimberry was spinning glowsticks using movements similar to the martial arts in which Van Roeyen was trained. "Chris wanted to learn martial arts, but had no way to pay for classes," explained Van Roeyen, "so…he started to teach me poi, and I would teach him martial arts." With the addition of Joe Spanier and Sonny Lee Johnson, a poi veteran and friend of Van Roeyen’s, the Peoria-based fire spinning group known as Phoenix Rising came to be.
With a handful of performances under their belts, it did not take long for the group to meet other like-minded individuals. "I found an article in the paper back in 2007 about a fire performance crew that was having a show at Glen Oak’s Howl-Zoo-Ween," recalled April Kemp. "We (myself, Terry Allen, Cliff White, Shannon Lowder, and Terry’s son, Tairae) met up with the then-Phoenix Rising members and spun with them the following night."
"I had been fire spinning/fire dancing for about two years," explained Allen. "I had seen the article in the Journal Star…and decided to go to their next gig…We all had a lot in common, and they invited us back to spin with them at their next show. And things just started to build from there."
Upon expanding its roster of performers, Phoenix Rising became Phoenix Underground. They elected to keep the "Phoenix" part of the name, appending "Underground" to it, as several members used to spin glowsticks at the former Club Underground in downtown Peoria. "We decided that it was about time for a change of name, as we were hitting upon different attitudes and ideas," explained Van Roeyen. "Members from both factions were mixing together something new, something pure, something that had never been done in this town before."
At that point, Spanier broke off and formed his own fire poi group, called Lux Orbis. "We all stay close in our bonds of friendship, and we’ve even gotten together on a couple of events, like Steamboat Days in 2008 and 2009," said Van Roeyen. "We might be in separate groups, but we all still remember that we come from one family, one tribe: the tribe of fire."
What is Poi?
A favorite of fire spinners, poi is a form of performance art involving object manipulation and movement, in which balls of Kevlar wick on either end of a chain are swung around the body in rhythmical patterns. The art of spinning poi originated from the Maori people of New Zealand. In the Maori language, poi can refer to the object itself, the choreographed moves or the accompanying music. It became a part of men’s rituals in Hawaii and was first viewed publicly in 1959. Many poi artists have borrowed elements from other disciplines: martial arts, Indian club swinging, and rhythmic gymnastics, for example. For a lengthier discussion of poi, visit www.wikipedia.org/wiki/poi.
It’s All About Flow
"Poi and fire dancing is all about flow," exclaims Davidovitz. "Flowing with the music, the beats, the audience-and fusing it all together seamlessly."
Many of the group’s movements and techniques, especially footwork, derive from various martial arts traditions, as do some of their "toys": poi, staves, swords, chi balls. "Martial arts play a huge role in connecting the hand and eye to thoughts and ideas, but used as just movement, not defense," notes Allen.
"You are controlling the sense of timing of your body and external rhythms as they interact, and at the same time controlling how hard and soft you are," adds Van Roeyen. "A Wudang kung fu teacher, Master Giuseppe Siani, has said, ‘To relax is to be in control of every millimeter that comprises your body, inside and outside.’"
For the most part, Phoenix Underground members make their own "toys." Some buy professional wicks made of Kevlar; others make wicks out of heavy material like welding blankets or thick canvas, claims Sonny Johnson. "I prefer glowsticks. David and Tairae enjoy fire poi, and Terry and Cliff both like the fire staff…it all depends on how the person likes to move, really."
As for music, the group generally prefers heavily percussive beats, such as drums or techno, to accompany their movements because, says Davidovitz, it "facilitates flow and allows one to tune into a more primal energy." But for Shannon Lowder, "music doesn’t matter. If you have flow, you can spin to anything."
The Secret of Movement
According to Terry Allen, fire spinning must be learned in steps: "Glowsticks for starters, or sock poi, a pair of long tube socks with tennis balls dropped in the bottom for weight and safety.
"My method of training," he continues, "was to play one of my favorite songs and try to make patterns and shapes continuously. Create a start move, a few more moves, and an end move. As you brainstorm on what other moves to make, practice the few you have until you can do them without thought. Once you have this, you have created your flow."
Van Roeyen claims that fire spinning is not difficult to learn once you get over the fear of burning yourself. "When you respect the fire, the fire respects you," he says. "When you disrespect the fire, guess what? It burns your ass. When it comes to training, practice makes perfect. Poi, like martial arts (to an extent), is muscle memory. The more you practice, the more your body knows the technique."
"It comes down to learning to become comfortable with the poi and yourself," says Johnson. "Your body will be trained in moving in different ways that it was not used to moving in. Ultimately, all of life has flow; it’s up to you how to use it…that’s the secret of movement."
Respect for the Flame
Fire performers hold great respect for the flame, understanding that they can never have total control over it. "I would be lying if I said it wasn’t dangerous," says Davidovitz. "Fire can never be fully controlled. Tamed? Yes. Respected? Always!"
Knowing this, the group takes many precautions: a keen awareness of surroundings, the use of flame-retardant materials, suppression materials in case of emergencies. "That said, I would not encourage just anyone to pick up a pair of fire poi and start spinning," continues Davidovitz. "It takes a lot of maturity and experience, and some of us trained for months or longer on non-fire toys to get our techniques right. We’ve all had our mishaps, and some of us bear scars from our learning experiences."
Some organizations have been reticent to host the group out of safety concerns-"after all, it’s not for the faint of heart," notes Davidovitz-and the group respects those viewpoints. "However, for the most part," he says, "city authorities, as well as the administration at Bradley University, have been most supportive and encouraging in helping us foster and expand this beautiful art here in Peoria."
A Creative Force
At nine years old, Tairae Hersemen is the youngest member of this diverse group. "At Steamboat Days back in 2008," he recalls, "the crowd was going crazy when they saw someone my age doing awesome at something that looks so dangerous!"
If you happen to catch a fire-spinning performance, you are unlikely to be disappointed. "The crowds have been surprisingly overwhelming at times," says Chris Brimberry, "to the point that over 300 people would show up just to see us at an event. We never thought it would get as popular as it has, and for that, we are truly thankful."
"Every event we have the privilege of participating in helps us and the public understanding of our art to grow," adds Davidovitz. "We’ve been all over the country and the world, but what’s really special to us is what we all do together right here at home."
The fire of Phoenix Underground is not to be feared. It is dance; it is meditation. It is rhythm; it is flow. It is a creative force. a&s