A pair of fire fans sit in Molly Wyldfyre Block's trunk, wrapped in cloth and safe in an aluminum case. As she unpacks her equipment, she and Pali Endi, a friend and fellow fire artist, discuss which instruments they want to practice with.
"I didn't do my hair for staff," Wyldfyre jokes as she sets aside the pole exceeding five feet in length.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other options – in addition to the staff and fans, Wyldfyre performs with poi, double batons, claws (shorter versions of the fans) and breathes fire as well. Her fire sword is a personal favorite. While poi and staff are perhaps the most common, most performers have preferences – Endi uses poi, hoops, fans and a fire wand.
Tonight, they're practicing at their friend Josh's house, taking advantage of his open yard – their own apartments aren't conducive to spinning balls of fire around the living room, but the fire performer community is small and tight-knit.
"One of the most special and important things about fire spinning is that community that comes with it," Endi says, absently petting Abby, the joyous pooch who lives with their host. Next to her, Wyldfyre is asking if Josh has any eyelash glue on hand – alas, he does not.
As Wyldfyre changes into her belly dance/fire performance gear – a silver hip shawl tied around black yoga pants, and a black brassiere that jingles with thin chains and rows of metal tokens – Endi fills small paint buckets with fuel to dip the tools.
Each of the women has been manipulating fire to thrill audiences for years, swinging poi – two balls of fire at the end of two chains – juggling torches, spinning staffs that are lit on either end, twirling fiery hoops and using pretty much anything she can light up to entrance her audience.
Dance and fire
Both women also teach workshops, and Wyldfyre offers belly dance lessons in addition to those in fire instruments.
"I fuse belly dance and fire together," says Wyldfyre, who teaches belly dance classes at IntoSalsa.
Her respective crafts developed together, and elements of belly dance – including the distinctive performance outfits – are almost always part of her fire spinning.
Wyldfyre's second performance as a belly dancer was at the 2006 opening of the studio where she now teaches, Corenza's Caravan.
"I had been belly dancing, a closet belly dancer, for about three years and so I did a solo and was really shy and really timid. And they were like, 'oh, will you come spin fire for the opening of my belly dance studio?'" she says.
"They had just gotten the place, hadn't even put down dance floors; it still had carpet... They were like, 'burn the floor, we don't care!'"
She agreed, stipulating that the owner also allow her to do a belly dance, solo.
"She kept hiring me, and encouraging me to come up there and I started teaching there. So I was doing belly dance and fire, very much integrating the two into one," Wyldfyre says. "I like fire dancing more than fire spinning; just being able to see the different genres of dance that come out in each of those is interesting."
Now, as Endi lights her friend's fans, Wyldfyre's poise and grace make it difficult to believe she was ever nervous to perform for a crowd. Her smooth movements speak to her physical control, over the fire and her own body, melting into sensuous, blazing artistry.
Where Wyldfyre is belly dancing and salsa, Endi leans more toward ballet and club dancing.
"It just depends on what I'm doing," Endi says. "I started tumbling when I was four, and then I went into tap, jazz and ballet when I was five... then I did ballroom in high school, and Molly taught me some belly dance.... A little bit of African. I try to pick up whatever dance I can, because it's another word in my language that I can use to express whatever it is I'm trying to with my dancing."
Older than civilization
Like Endi's dance, Wyldfyre says modern performances draw from cultures worldwide.
"It came from a lot of different places, and was used in a lot of different ways," Wyldfyre notes, adding that some origins were arts, others utility.
She cited Maori fire dances and English troops using poi to signal at night, when nothing else would be visible across the distance.
"You could signal someone out at sea from, you know, something lit on fire," she explains."And then it got really boring waiting for the ship to come, so they started playing drums and dancing around with it, getting drunk, lighting things on fire... 'Hey, let's light this on fire and see what happens!' That's always fun."
Wyldfyre first lit up with a more experienced friend.
"I used his knowledge and his equipment and lit the first time in a field with, like, three-foot high grass, and rain. Everybody was 20 feet away and they were like, 'If you burn yourself, just stop, drop and roll if you catch on fire.' It was really, really safe," she laughs.
Endi lit for the first time in Wyldfyre's backyard, which had an eight-foot privacy fence. They practiced there frequently.
"We lit a lot of other things on fire that shouldn't have been, back there," Wyldfyre says."It became like a little lab, where you could try new things because you knew the outside world couldn't see you."
Playing with fire
While people of all ages are interested in learning to spin, kids are common in the women's workshops.
"They turn their brains off.Kids are almost easier to teach than adults, because they're not trying to analyze it," Wyldfyre says.
While many parents might balk at letting children "play with fire," others are comfortable allowing their kids to work with fire from a younger age – under proper supervision.
"I lit an 11-year-old one time, and both of her parents were like, 'she's awesome, she's great, she's ready to do it, you feel safe with her' and everything else, but it was done in a controlled, safe, waiver-signed environment," Wyldfyre says. And there was no problem with that, because there was a respect for it."
While having a teacher can be beneficial, Endi says it's not the only way to train.
"It depends on how you learn. Some people can read the instructions and watch the YouTube videos and be like, 'OK, I'm gonna do it,' but you should definitely have someone with you," Endi says, if only to act as a safety.
Endi and Wyldfyre often perform together for shows, either at the same time or alternating.
"We work together, we work separate, we work in other groups. [Endi] travels a lot, so she ends up working with a lot of different groups," Wyldfyre says."But we always end up having these great experiences, where we're like, 'we've got 20 minutes to put on a show – what are we gonna do?' It's the two of us, and we always inevitably come up with something that, we get done with it and we're like, 'that's exactly what I needed.'"
When they work together, they usually use different equipment – Endi practicing with hoops, for example, while Wyldfyre dances with her batons.
"It's easier to flow in and out of each other, and it's more dynamic to have different pieces going at once.You get different feels out of the music," Wyldfyre says.
At the end of the night, when the fire is extinguished, the tools are wrapped up and put away, and Wyldfyre has changed out of her chain mail brassiere. Pali and Molly are back to laughing about having "Squirrel!" moments (a la the movie Up) and speaking in the secret, inside-joke language of two close friends.
All in the fire family
"I can set pretty much anything on fire with the right equipment," remarks Beth McAmis as she sits in Brian Shank's backyard during a practice with Phoenix Fire Productions.
While she loves performing with fire, McAmis has a more important job – she's the stay-at-home mother of two five-year-olds, her son and Phoenix safety Bob Winters' (also her boyfriend) daughter.
McAmis's five-year-old son spins poi and staff and hula hoops – none of these tools actually on fire, of course.
"He can't tie his shoes.No, he can't play with fire," she laughs. "I want him to be able to drive a car legally. I want him to be able to have a job, so he can pay for his own performer's insurance, and he will have performer's insurance before he lights up for the first time."
She says Winters'daughter is also developing an interest in spinning.
"She's been asking me to make her poi recently," McAmis says, adding that it's good entertainment for the kids in a pinch. "All I had was my poi and my twin hoops, and they got to play with those, and his daughter was just enamored. She was having a lot of fun. But they're pretty competitive, so they were 'she's got one, I want one!' 'OK, well now you need to give her two.' 'But I want two!' 'OK, well, wait five minutes.' And then she would want the hoops he was playing with, and they would switch."
Like most performers, McAmis has her preferred tools.
"It's all object manipulation. I have poi moves, I have staff moves. Hula hoop incorporates both of those. Some poi moves tranfer into staff and vice versa, just with the ideas about where you can go, which end needs to be where at what point in time."
She started with poi in the late '90s and had her first show in 2004, but McAmis has been spinning makeshift staffs since elementary school. Growing up in Greenfield, she admired the flag-spinning marching band guard corps at annual parades.
"To my four- or five-year-old self, that was the epitome of cool," she laughs, "and I wanted to do that, so I spent a really long time twirling sticks, and rakes, and shovels, whatever stick-like thing I had, and pretending."
Ironically, she never joined the guard, opting for marching band instead in the eighth grade.
"I was the only drum major they'd ever had who would actually throw the baton, and catch it, and be able to do the cool things that you see on the Macy's (Thanksgiving) Day parades. And then I would show the guard girls how it was done."
Phoenix Fire Productions
In Phoenix Fire Productions, McAmis has a half-dozen other performers with whom she can practice and perform. "We have an incredible amount of skill here," she says."There's no limit to what we can do. Everyone you see here has a passion for what they do."
Phoenix Fire Production members include:
Staff, whip, fans
Has been performing for about three years
Fire as Zen: "It's really a form of mediation.It's a way of relaxing."
Why he prefers white gas: "It's refined fuel, burns cleaner. You won't get a lot of soot off it, and I like it, compared to others with a lot of smoke and fumes."
Inspired by an old co-worker: "I was diagnosed with cancer around the same time she showed me that she did that and it just enthralled me and I fell in love with it."
Has been in remission for a year and a half
Can't dance: "Give me some fire equipment and I can halfway pull it off, but without it, I just look ridiculous."
Great performance moment: "I roasted a marshmallow off my tongue for a little boy at one of the shows. He loved it."
Taught himself how to use fire poi: "When I first started, I didn't even know you could do it without lit equipment, honestly, so I started with fire and stuck with fire for a few months and then I was like, 'oh, you can do this without fire – that's more convenient!'"
Stage name: "Thaabit," a nickname from his time as an Army linguist (means "firm" in Arabic)
Has been juggling his whole life, but just lit up for the first time this year
Used to teach Arabic at Indiana University Bloomington
Has been performing with staff since September, 2009, and poi since November, 2005
Also does contact juggling (since November, 2007)
Recently returned from performing in New Orleans
SIDBAR: Safety first
One of the most important people in a fire performance stands watch on the sidelines. Bob Winters and Terry Judkins act as Phoenix's "safety," whose job it is "to make sure that the performer and audience are all safe, and nothing burns that should not be." He's on hand with a large, wet blanket to put out any unintentional fires – on the performer or anywhere else.
"Everyone has to be able to see and hear and trust the safety," Phoenix performer McAmis says.
If safety tells the fire breather to stop, they do it, no questions asked.While the performer is focused on their instrument, the safety is on the lookout for anything and everything. Because an artist may not see someone getting too close, or feel that the hood of their jacket has caught fire, they must trust their safety.
"If they see, they'll probably stop on their own," Winters says of potential disasters.
The safety must also be aware of possible dangers – Winters would never approach performer Brian Shank during a whip performance, for example, until he stopped and held the instrument out to the side.
"I say 'hold' and he doesn't hear me, and I start rushing in, that's gonna split me open, literally," Winters says.
The safety is responsible for checking the equipment, though most performers maintain their own.
"All these people are good friends of mine, so I care," he says."I don't mind if I have to be a jerk.I won't be unless I have to be."
"You have to have that personality, too, to tell people and not let them push you around," Shank says, whether that be the performer, venue employee or audience member.
Shank says to always wear natural fibers – like cotton – because they're less flammable than most synthetics, such as polyesters.
"Safety's always the first concern for everybody.We always go audience, venue, performer," he says, meaning that the audience's safety is the top priority, followed by the venue and the performer.
They keep a first aid kit on hand as well.
"Burn cream – we go through a lot of it," Shank says, laughing.
SIDEBAR: Light my fire
For fuel, many performers typically use Coleman white gas.
Wyldfyre uses Bacardi 151, lamp oil, Coleman white gas and/or charcoal lighter fluid, depending on a variety of factors, including setting (indoors vs. outdoors), desired fire duration, instrument of choice and environment.Each has different properties that make it preferable under certain circumstances — white gas burns the hottest, but charcoal lighter fluid, which burns coolest, "is super stinky, and it's really rough on your lungs and it's not quite as bright, but it lasts a little bit longer," Wyldfyre explains.
"They all have their upsides and their downsides," she says -- white gas lights more easily in windy conditions, for example, while anyone who grills outdoors knows charcoal lighter isn't great in high winds. "Some people put charcoal light fluid on there so it'll last awhile, and then douse it in Coleman so it'll light easy."
"A lot of people do a mix of Coleman and lamp oil because the lamp oil lasts longer and burns at a lower temperature, but the Coleman is that quick light," Endi says.
Once the fuel is gone, the fire begins to burn and slowly damage the wick, something white gas does slightly faster in part because it burns so hot.
Wyldfyre uses both Bacardi and lamp oil (liquid paraffin) for fire breathing – Bacardi for indoors, because it evaporates quickly, but outdoors, she prefers lamp oil because, "I can't get drunk off it. It doesn't eat away the lining of my mouth."
"Liquid paraffin, I can hold for like five minutes, so when I'm doing a show, you never know – at some point, there's just going to be a burst of fire.I like to breathe fire as an addition, not as the whole show," she says.