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[whitespace] Chelsea Cawley
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Forever Ember: Fire-eater Chelsea Cawley gives the phrase 'burning sensation' a whole new meaning.

Some Like It Hot

Fire dancing has become a consuming passion among hot young things

By Tai Moses

WHEN CHELSEA CAWLEY sets her tongue on fire, people watch with rapt attention. Holding a small, homemade torch in each hand, the 26-year-old opens her mouth wide and touches the end of one torch lightly to her tongue, blotting it with a coating of fuel.

With the torch in the other hand, she sets her tongue ablaze and sticks the flaming appendage out as far as she can. Some people in the audience scream, others cheer her on, but the majority just watch, spellbound, their own mouths hanging open.

"Chicks with fire," Chelsea says with a laugh, explaining the phenomenon. "It's just kind of a soft spot for a lot of people."

Chelsea, who lives in the Santa Cruz mountains and has a regular Wednesday night gig at San Jose's Cactus Club performing under the stage name Jewn, has been fire dancing for five years. The flaming tongue feat is the highlight of an act that includes fire chains, fire-swallowing and "body lights," in which she drags a lit torch across her stomach, arms and back. Excess fuel from the torch is transferred onto her skin igniting it dramatically and, it must be said, erotically.

"The whole thing is pretty sexual, especially the fire swallowing and the body lights," she says. "It's a primal thing--plus, I've got some pretty big tattoos and stuff."

Chelsea's fire routine, performed with a backdrop of deafening live music, is a world away from old-time fire entertainers like the legendary Barnello the Fire King, who also went by the names the Human Volcano and the Living Gas Jet. In Barnello's day, fire acts were the strict province of the carnival. Today, fire breathing and eating have emerged from the sideshow and, in the space of a handful of years, become a counterculture fad in which nearly anyone can--and does--participate.

If Barnello were to stroll by Lighthouse Point on a clear, windless Sunday night, he'd be amazed to see a spectacle of illuminated dance: people rhythmically spinning miniature meteors of fire that etch spectacular designs into the night; a fire breather spewing a 10-foot-long plume of orange flame; a dreadlocked dancer gracefully twirling a long staff, its ends ablaze. And not a circus tent in sight.

As a hobby, performance art or form of incendiary meditation, fire dancing is spreading worldwide, with a heated concentration on the United States' West Coast. Professional burn troupes Pyrogeist and Seeds of Fire make their home in the Bay Area while Seattle boasts Cirque de Flambé and Thermogenesis. Hundreds of unaffiliated fire enthusiasts practice their art at parks and beaches, musical events, raves and festivals.

The most popular activity is fire spinning, also called poi, from the Maori word for ball (poi balls, sans fire, are an implement used in traditional Maori dance). Fire spinners swing two lengths of chain or cable with wicks attached to each end around their bodies. The pastime has caught on so fast that Seattle's famed Pyro Boy, Wally Glenn, dubbed it "the yo-yo of the new millennium."

"It really picked up two years ago," says Tom Kidwell, founding genius of juggling supply company Renegade Juggling. "We call them fire pixies," Kidwell says; "usually they're tattooed, pierced."

Renegade is headquartered in Santa Cruz but supplies performers and hobbyists worldwide through its website, www.renegadejuggling.com. Kidwell says he's significantly expanded fire inventory in response to demand, doing a brisk trade in props like fire cables, fire staffs and dance torches--which come with detailed fire safety information, dire warnings and recommendations for fire retardant jumpsuits.

Sparking a Trend

THERE'S A GOOD reason why we are instructed to yell "Fire" rather than "Help" when our lives are in peril. Fire is an attractor, a nearly narcotic visual force laden with potent symbolism. Combined with music and motion, it creates a dramatic, mesmerizing vision. Spectators can't take their eyes off those fiery orbs, licking brilliant tongues through the darkness, the intense heat and flame just inches away from scorching human flesh.

Fire enthusiasts tout both the addictive properties of the art form and the awe it inspires in audiences.

"You could light a newspaper on fire and people would watch it," Chelsea says. "Even if I put on a bad show people are still going to scream; they just want to see fire."

Spinning, says Santa Cruz poi baller and fire breather Raven, "is a very personal art." Everyone learns a set of basic moves and then adds their own unique twist. A group of fire spinners may use similar equipment but end up with wildly varying styles.

"We're all fire performers," Raven says. "Any fire performer is someone who's playing with fire, whether it's poi, fire breathing, clubs, etc. I've seen some things that don't even fit into those categories. Some performers I've known have attached wicking to the ends of two [fencing] foils. I've seen people who have converted chain whips, a 10-foot- long rope with knives on the end--I guess you'd have to call that a fire bolo."

Nearly every fire dancer I talked to shared the experience of having a pyrotechnic epiphany at their first encounter with fire art; like the lightening bolt seared into Harry Potter's forehead. The thrill of getting intimate with your own personal inferno, of harnessing an energy both demonic and divine, creative and destructive, is irresistible for some. Fire spinners also say they feel a tribal link to cultures that have incorporated the manipulation of fire in their rituals and dances for thousands of years.

For Scotts Valley fire performer Kai, who first saw a girl spinning fire at a music festival, the experience was like being kicked in the heart by a mule.

"I was just so hypnotized and amazed by this woman--suddenly she was a goddess, she wasn't even a woman any more."

Kai and her boyfriend, Majinga the Magician (who eats fire from the tip of a sword), do fire routines with Magique Bazaar, a performance troupe that has monthly shows at the Gaslighter Theater in Campbell and tours around the Bay Area.

"For me it's about the spiritual aspect; it's the cosmos," Kai says. "From the moment I saw these fire balls spinning around all I could think of were planets and stars."

Fire Dancer
Photograph by Ivan Kashinsky

Ring of Fire: A fire spinner etches spectacular designs into the night with miniature meteors of flame.

Light It Up

THE ANSWERING MACHINE at Crimson Rose's Oakland home says, "I'm either away from my desk burning something or I'm talking to someone else."

Crimson is the fire performance director for Nevada's annual Burning Man festival, and also holds the exalted title of Naked Fire Goddess.

She confirms what many have already told me: the spark that kindled the fire performer subculture flew straight from the venerable feet of the Man himself. There were approximately 50 fire performers out in the desert in 1998; a scant two years later, Burning Man 2000 drew more than 500 fire dancers.

"When I started 20 years ago, very few people were playing with fire," Crimson says. "Now I'm starting to see hula hoops with fire, stilts on fire, fire fingers--wires attached to the fingers that become extensions of the hands. The fire performers feed off each other."

The attraction to fire, says Crimson, is very simple: "Mom said: Don't play with fire."

Despite Mom's, or anyone else's warnings, the Naked Fire Goddess herself enjoys actual contact with the flame.

"I handle it, I put it on my body. I'll have a bowl of fire that has rubbing alcohol in it, I'll get my fingers wet, so I can literally pull off a flame from the fire. I'll torch my torso and neck. It's a very empowering feeling, which is what drew me to it. I almost feel like I'm being manipulated by the fire."

There's a memorable scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which the young Lawrence casually snuffs out a lit match with his bare fingers. When a comrade attempts the trick and winces in pained surprise, the unflappable Lawrence replies, "Certainly it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts."

Marcus Aurelius himself would find it hard to top the stoic attitude fire dancers embrace to bear the stings and burning arrows of their art.

Chelsea says her body lights routine "burns a little bit, but there's no marks or anything. It's tolerable, it's not that bad really." What about that flaming tongue? "It's pretty quick. And if I want to put it out I just put my tongue back in my mouth."

"You get burned and singed now and then," Raven says bravely. "It's sort of payment for doing the art."

And more and more people are anteing up to pay the piper.

"The fire community has been growing by leaps and bounds," Raven says. "We are a culture, we are a force, and we will only grow."

"I hear things like 'fire performers are so sexy that I want to learn how to do it,'" Crimson says.

Experienced fire dancers worry that overexposure will ruin what they see as a meditative spiritual exercise that demands respect and healthy fear from practitioners.

"Somewhere along the line some respect for the art has gotten lost, cause they haven't really had to earn it," says Chelsea. "It's getting out of control."

Fanning the Flames

WITH THE RANKS of new fire warriors swelling, there are also signs that a few may be taking unwarranted risks.

"There's a great concern from people that have been in it for a while to make sure that people play safely," says Crimson. "I've seen extremes from the newbies that are trying to do it really fast, to the people trying to develop their own style and repertoire."

Benjamin Mack, author of Fire Eating: A Manual of Instruction, maintains that fire eating is so inherently dangerous that the first tip he offers in his book is, "Try sword swallowing. The swords taste better and you don't have to worry about the wind."

"A lot of these fire dancers don't realize they can't go out there solo, they have to have a fire extinguisher, a blanket, you really do need someone to train you," says Kai, adding that she practiced for a year before even lighting up her fire props. "I've heard some really gruesome stories about people lighting their faces on fire. You are playing with fire and it requires a certain amount of fabulous respect paid to the fire gods."

Chelsea also errs on the side of caution.

"You think you know what you're doing and then you light them on fire and you forget everything you thought you knew," she recalls of her first experience lighting up. "It sounds like a roaring fire and it's very intimidating when you first start out.

"I saw one girl, she did it with her hair down, she was totally plastered drunk. I was trying to convince her not to do it, that she should at least tie her hair back. She just dumped some charcoal lighter--fuel is a whole other debate--and went for it. It took a lot of honor out of it. I found out that girl is getting high-paying shows on yacht parties."

"If you play with fire you're going to get burned," says Crimson, "and I think it's very appropriate--hopefully it's enough that it's going to wake you up. It's not about control, it's about manipulation; anybody that thinks they can control the flame will get burned really bad."

But many spinners do believe they can control the flames. A poll conducted by the website Home of Poi and Fire Twirling (www.homeofpoi.com) shows that fire dancers are nearly equally divided on the issue. More than 43 percent of the poll's 148 respondents agreed with the statement, "We can control fire."

"I am holding in my hands the possibility of endangering someone else, of burning the place down if worse comes to worst," Chelsea says. "The possibilities are endless, if something goes wrong. You have to have a straight head on your shoulders. If I do it at raves people are out of their mind. I had one guy come at me; he wasn't listening to reason. You have to realize that this is a risk that you're taking."

But when all goes well (as it usually does), and fire spinners get into the groove, fire performances can bring about a trancelike state in both performer and audience.

"It's a trade; I get respect," Chelsea says, adding proudly, "Crowds will part after you're done."

"There's something very religious and meditative about spinning fire," says Raven, "because if you start thinking about what you're doing you're going to start hitting yourself. When you start forcing it, you start making mistakes."

"In my experience," Kai says, "there are two kinds of fire dancers out there, two attitudes. One is the performers: most get paid; they have put together an actual fire act, with showmanship. The other kind of fire dancer are people are who just into doing it for the meditation, it's not for the audience."

Raven believes that the fire performance movement is heading toward what he calls "an environmental theater ideal, in which the most heartfelt performances by fire dancers are the ones that are done out on the street, out in the world, not caring if one person is watching or 1,000 people."

The penchant for pyromancy has given way to increasingly imaginative and bizarre forms, as performers push the edge, trying to top themselves and each other in their quest for flammable fun.

Even the Naked Fire Goddess, who's seen it all--including a woman in a wheelchair spinning poi--is still capable of being awed by a new incendiary trick; for instance, the Seattle troupe Magmavox.

"They do a routine where they're back to back, blindfolded and spinning poi, and the look on their face is one of pure delight," Crimson Rose says. "That is the wildest thing I've seen."

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From the August 22-29, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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