Playing with fire
It's getting hot in here: The art and danger of fire spinning
Sage Jacote was 27 years old when she was invited to a show-and-tell party in East Austin. Everybody was bringing something to share; poets and musicians dominated the party until the host asked the guests to move to the backyard.
As the partygoers filtered through the back door, a traveling woman with two poi — weighted balls of Kevlar, each on the end of a chain with a handle — lit them on fire and began swinging them around in different patterns as she danced.
Jacote was “mesmerized and freaked out.” She just had to try this herself.
Now 43, Jacote is a professional fire-dancer. She performs individually and as part of the fire-dancing troupe Sangre Del Sol. She and her troupe book for backyard parties, festivals, children’s parties, weddings, club performances and corporate events in Austin and around Central Texas.
“If you didn’t get burned, everybody would probably be doing it. So maybe its good that there’s a danger element to it.”
Fire-dancing, also known as fire-spinning, is an underground national trend that is considered both a sport and art based around different forms of new and historical dances, acrobatics and geometrical patterns. The fire-dancer manipulates an object — like poi, or a staff — using their body while the objects are on fire.
Fire-dancers will light almost anything on fire if they think it will make a good show.
Jacote’s routines include handmade fire poi, single staff, double short staves, palm torches, two different types of flaming fans, fire wings, fire crowns, fire orbs, fire hoops, fire fingers, pitchforks and even a brassiere that shoots fire — for the more mature performances. She and her troupe partner, a blacksmith, make all of their own props.
A wick of a thick canvas material, like Kevlar, is attached to the object to be set on fire. The wick is expected to burn for at least five-minutes and can be lit multiple times for multiple dances. Sometimes, in the case of the fire orb, the entire object is wrapped in canvas.
Before a performance, the fire-dancer soaks each wick on the object — or the entire object — in kerosene or some other flammable petroleum product for five to 10 minutes. The fire tool is removed from the fuel bucket and carefully spun to remove excess fuel.
Then comes the fun part. The rush of hot air as the performer spins the fire hoop around their body, the “whoosh” sound the staff makes as it is flipped up into the air and caught halfway to the ground, the gasps of wonder from a fresh audience as the first poi is lit up.
Jacote says, with tears in her eyes, that she feels extremely honored to fire-spin in front of spectators. For her, spinning is a spiritual thing. “It’s amazing. I feel connected with spirit. Sometimes it feels extremely powerful,” she says. “Sometimes my heart feels so full of love that I feel like I’m going to burst.”
When Jacote was 27 years old, fire-dancing in Austin was a rare sight. Today, the community built around fire-spinning and other so-called circus arts draws people from all walks of life and all ages to its performances and play-dates. “I think that the reason it’s getting really popular is because it is healing a lot of people,” Jacote says. “That’s the underlying thing that people aren’t really seeing.”
23-year-old David Hudson works at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar and fire-dances for fun.
He started spinning a few years ago because he was attracted to the sense of community, the feeling of belonging, and it looked pretty cool.
For the usual five minutes of fire-dancing he may practice up to 200 hours spinning his poi, staff, double staves or hoop. It is this practice leading up to the performance that speaks more to him than the actual show.
“You get this huge feeling of power off of the fire. It’s this beautiful amazing thing. But it’s really toxic.”
Hudson spins for what he calls his “flow state.” “Instead of you playing the object, the object is playing you. The universe is playing you,” Hudson says. “Moments of genius will flow through you. Same as when you’re playing a song. You play this incredible melody or this incredible beat that’s beyond you. That transcendence is so valuable to me. It really does make it all worth it to find yourself completely lost.”
Jacote feels that transcendence as well. But for her, it isn’t just about what she personally feels — her performance is for her audience. She's had many people come up to her after a performance thanking her and telling her that the movements and patterns of her fire-spinning “shifted something” in them.
“If you’re able to dance and release your ego from your dance, things get channeled through you that are beyond this world that we live in,” Jacote says. “When that happens, you can change people. You can inspire people and shift what’s going on in them. They get filled with passion and inspiration and the courage to make the changes they need to make in their life.”
It is for this change that Jacote spins, despite the dangers of dancing with fire.
Jacote’s usual performance lasts 20 to 25 minutes. Most of her fire tools burn for no more than five minutes. She doesn’t repeat any of the fire tools she uses. She dances without a break — except to change out her tools that are prepared for performance by a paid “Safety.” The Safety is also constantly monitoring Jacote and the fire tools in case clothing or parts of the stage catch on fire, or in case the fire tools malfunction.
“You get this huge feeling of power off of the fire. It’s this beautiful amazing thing. But it’s really toxic,” she says.
Not only is the fire itself dangerous, but the fuel and chemicals used during performances are dangerous.
Jacote has had 17 years of exposure to different petroleum chemicals and methanol — a chemical that she mixes with metal salt to created colored fire. Breathing in methanol and petroleum fumes can be harmful to the body.
working with these chemicals can result in vision problems, mild skin irritations, chronic headaches, dizziness, insomnia, nausea and gastric distress. “I’ve made a serious sacrifice over the years,” Jacote says. “I had to make a choice a long time ago. I have to stay extremely clean. I have to eat clean. I have to watch my body.”
Jacote doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t party that much. But she says because her audience gets so much out of her performances, and because she also ultimately benefits, the sacrifice is worth it. “If you didn’t get burned, everybody would probably be doing it,” Jacote says. “So maybe its good that there’s a danger element to it.”
For more information about Sangre Del Sol please visit their website.