By ANNA STONE
At a neighbor’s party about a decade ago, the sun had set and people were gathering outside. All eyes were on a woman getting ready to dance with fire. Drummers began to play and the dancer set fire to wicking attached to chains, referred to as ‘poi’. Two fiery orbs spun playfully around the dancer in perfect practiced patterns of shadow and light. Mesmerized, all that was left to do was sign up for classes, which began the next day.
The Origins of Fire Dancing
Maybe you’ve seen a baton twirler tossing fire high into the air as she lead a marching band?
A fire poi dancer is seen twirling his wares with a circus parade at the end scene of Annie, the musical. Samoans dazzle the audience every time with their blazing knives
. It’s almost certain that each of us has witnessed fire dancing in some form or the other, and today, hundreds of fire troupes worldwide perform both professionally and for fun.
Fire dancing has grown exponentially over the past two decades, and many attribute its growth to The Burning Man Festival, which is a social experiment on temporary community that takes place in Nevada every year, and the home to the largest fire arts gathering in North America. Marilyn Besasie, production assistant, and Eric Griswold, an engineer at the Medical College, first saw fire dancing at The Burning Man Festival in 1997.
“It was the most stunning art form I’d ever seen,” Griswold said. Besasie claims to have loved fire and dance for as long as she can remember, and when she saw the two combined, she was determined to master it, which she did. She now teaches fire dancing through her studio in BayView called YouAreSphere.
Besasie and Griswold are the founding members of a fire performance troupe, SnowFire. The troupe started up in 2002
and has been performing ever since. They’ve been hired to perform at a number of weddings, corporate parties, and festivals, and unless you’re one to never leave the home, it’s certain you’ve seen them perform at some point around Milwaukee.
One of Besasie’s students and SnowFire member, Theresa Abelew, who works on the editorial staff of Art and Jewelry mag
azine, has been taking classes in fire dancing for the past three years. She turned to fire dancing after becoming weary of the high turnover rate of swing dancing partners.
“I would get a partner, we would get really good, and then he would find a girl, get married and never dance again. Fire is not going to run off and get married,” said Abelew, who traded in her dancing shoes for a set of kerosene soaked poi. She recently banded with fellow fire classmates form the troupe, Flaming Fatales.
Jackie Ratcliffe, graphic artist with GS Design and SnowFire member, picked up fire dancing from a fitness standpoint. She is always on the hunt for something new to stay active with, and it was her friends that were already fire spinning that lured her in. “It seemed scary to me the first time I did it, and I didn’t even really like it, but everyone believed in me, so I tried it again, and it was fun, and just became more and more fun every time I did it.” Ratcliffe, who claims to being shy before taking up fire dancing, now graces the stage with the coolness of a popsicle, even though she’s carrying fire. “I’ve noticed more self confidence, I would have never have dreamt before I’d be performing, I would have never put myself in front of an audience of any sort. Now it just seems more to me that if I’m fire dancing, I’m presenting a gift, and I love that.”
Want to give it a whirl?
Fire dancing may seem like a highly trained skill, obtainable only by individuals with a dance or circus arts background, but it is something almost anyone can pick up, as long as you have the gumption to throw in a little practice time.
“If new people are wondering, ‘Could I do this?’ I would tell them to join a knowledgeable group, take lessons
and learn how to do it safely first,” Besasie said.
So how safe is it? Each dancer in the troupe underwent extensive training in fire safety and possess Performer
s Insurance from Specialty Insurance Agency, a policy costing roughly $200 a year and covering up to $16,105,000 in damages.
There is a strong sense of shared enthusiasm bonding this motley Milwaukee fire community. Clearly, they carry a passion for what they do, for their safety and for the safety of the audiences they perform for.
SnowFire is always recruiting. For the art, for fitness or because you can’t keep a swing dance partner, if you think you might want to take up fire dancing into your repertoire, you can find out more at: www.YouAreSphere.com or www.TempleofPoi.com.