The History of Fire Dancing ~ Dancing with Fire in Thailand!
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The ancient art of fire dancing began hundreds of years ago by the people of Polynesia. In an area spanning over 4,000 square miles with hundreds of islands, it’s hard to pin-point exactly where in Polynesia fire dancing began. However it is believed that the Maori people of New Zealand were the first pioneers as the originators of poi.
Poi is a Maori word meaning “ball on a string.” Maoris warriors originally used poi as a form of exercise to train for battle or hunting. By swinging the heavy balls they developed wrist strength and flexibility to handle various weapons and tools. Eventually poi was used as a form of storytelling and dance. Traditionally, poi was constructed of natural flax fibers called muka, and anchored with the pithy middle of the raupo stem. Modern poi is constructed of more durable synthetic fibers consisting of bright colors. Contrary to popular belief, traditionally poi was never actually lit on fire. The art of dipping poi balls into fuel and lighting them on fire did not occur until the mid 20th century, as a progression of the Samoan fire knife.
The traditional Samoan knife dance was known as the ailao, an exhibition of a Samoan warrior’s strength and battle capabilities, usually performed with a war club at ceremonial processions of daughters and high chiefs. Eventually the club evolved into a machete, which is the most common tool used today in the knife dance. It was not until 1946 when a Samoan-American by the name of Uluao Letuli (often known as Freddie Letuli, a nickname he got because he could dance like Fred Astaire) was inspired at San Francisco’s Shriner’s Convention to light his knife on fire. The story goes that after watching a fire-eater and baton twirler perform, Uluao wrapped some towels around his knife, borrowed some fuel from the fire-eater, and lit his knife on fire for his performance.
Uluao’s fire knife was an instant success and from there the remaining Polynesian dancing instruments of poi, staff, and hoop were modified to be lit on fire. The first fire poi performances began in the 1950s in Hawaii as tourist attractions. Fire poi are constructed of a chain and kevlar-blend wicks on either ends, that are also stuffed with cotton or another type of fabric that could be dipped in fuel and used to soak it up. Although there are many different preferences on fuel, kerosene seems to be the most popular and safest due to its low burning temperature. The popularity of fire poi, fire staff, and fire knife at Hawaiian performances known as “luaus” inspired many other types of fire instruments such as fire fans, fire umbrella, fire balls, and fire whips.
Modern fire dancing in America did not grow popular until the early 1990s as performance art at massive party events such as raves, concerts, nightclubs, and beach parties. Some thank the western fascination with fire dancing to the growing popularity of the Burning Man festival, in which many Americans were first exposed to fire dances. Today there are hundreds of fire dancing troupes across the nation, each specializing in their own specific tools and types of dance.
As darkness falls on the popular beaches of South Thailand, it’s time for these nocturnal creatures to come out and play. Spinning, twisting, dipping and twirling, the fire dancers take centre stage silencing audiences with their danger defiant moves.
Captivated travellers look upon the acrobatic action with one one question in mind – how the hell do they not burn themselves? It’s a feat which requires much skill, whether dancing with the poi, a pair of arm-length chains with fiery balls at either end or the basic stick which is soaked in fuel and ignited at both tips.
Fire dancing Yogic moves – how do the dancers not burn themselves?
Backpackers cough up tips for the talented fire dancers in Koh Tao
Some say that fire dancing has it’s roots in ancient tribal dancing of the Maori’s of New Zealand. The word ‘poi’ in Maori language actually means ‘ball.’ Poi spinning was traditionally an important part of Maori culture and was used as a form of warrior training to improve agility. How poi as a performance art became adopted as a popular form of entertainment in Thailand and other parts of the world is unknown. Yet as you watch the spell-bound fire dancer work his way into an almost trance like state, ancient tribal origins do not seem so far away.
Fire dancers are frequently employed at the many bars and restaurants lining Thailand’s shores. You may catch them practicing their techniques on the beach during the day with unlit apparatus.a To those undaunted by the sport, think again – it takes months of practice to tone the body and hone the skills to fire dance before an audience.
The most deadliest of all fire dancing apparatus is the skipping rope, simply because of it’s seemingly magnetic draw for drunken backpackers. What goes through their heads I will never understand. Trying such a deadly sport requires dexterity and sharp reflex, which are exactly the faculties which are the first to go upon consumption of the dastardly bucket!
As the evening goes on more and more daredevil backpackers try their luck at jumping over the flaming rope as it soars high above the crowd. Parents’ advice not to play with fire seems to have fallen on deaf ears for some. And you wonder why so many backpackers walk round with bandaged legs? Leave it to the talented experts we say.