For once, a scantily clad goth woman swinging chains of neon-orange fireballs over her head isn’t doing so because I’ve pissed her off. Instead, this neo-renaissance nymph is gracefully snakelike, smiling and shimmying like a modern day Gypsy Rose Lee — only with globes circling her head like flaming Milky Way moons. This act, seemingly reckless and so dependent on her mastery of the physics of circular motion, is actually a very delicate dance.
The fiery orbs on her chains are known as “fire poi”; the woman, Dominique Immora (her stage name), is a “fire spinner.” She’s just one of several performance artists who are lighting the Boston-area dance world on . . . um . . . yeeeah.
Of the four elements of nature, fire is by far the sexiest, druggiest, and rock-and-rolliest. After all, Hendrix didn’t climax his performance at Monterey by dousing his guitar with water. Fire has danger appeal, and, here in Massachusetts, an air of forbidden fruit, thanks to our infamously Puritanical blue laws, which prohibit almost anything that involves an open flame, short of a cookout. This buzz-kill legislation would seemingly put a damper on Dominique and her fireballs, but it hasn’t fazed her or the tenacious coterie of locals who, while pussyfooting elvishly in secret nooks around Greater Boston, are slowly preparing the fire arts for their moment in the spotlight.
Quest for fire
Why are people so obsessed with fire, anyway? From Prometheus to Lucifer to Smokey Bear (“Smokey the Bear” is, surprisingly, incorrect. Who knew?), our most notorious mythological characters and feared eternal punishments are associated with blazes of glory or damnation. Our heroes fight it, our mavericks play with it. It’s in our bellies, under our asses.
A high-school history teacher of mine once told our class that the Huns, ignorant to the concept of cooking, used to sit on their meat to warm it, creating a primitive, smelly tartar of sorts. I don’t know if that’s true, but surely we’d still be attempting to warm up the fruits of yesterday’s kill by shoving it under our freezing haunches were it not for the magical cooking properties of fire.
Indeed, perhaps our cat-in-a-shiny-thing-factory infatuation with all things ablaze comes from biological inherence. After all, fire is our friend. We need it for heat, for light, for transforming sinewy animal flesh into savory, juicy hunks of culinary glory (duh, Huns). Fire fueled technology booms, gave us more effective weapons, and allowed us to see the people we were killing with those weapons after the sun had set. And, of course, without soft candlelight, mustachioed creepers with beer bellies and only a general geographic clutch on the lady button wouldn’t have a shot at getting laid. Without fire, the world would be a colder, darker, hornier place.Singed fringe
Because fire is biologically enabling, it makes sense that it’s also artistically empowering. Light up a stick and swing it around and, suddenly, the world stops; our eyes work frantically to keep up with the pretty orange glow.
Contemporary forms of global rituals are springing forth from the smoldering ashes of tradition, incorporating fire into dance and tribal-movement patterns to create modern versions of archaic art forms. Fire spinning essentially involves dancing with rigid objects that are affixed with wicks, dipped in fuel, and lit on fire. The objects vary, but the basics include staffs, hula hoops, and poi (that ball at the end of a cord or a chain). It does not involve, generally speaking, stapling your junk to your inner thigh and lighting your head on fire, à la Steve O of classy Jackass fame.
Spinning, at its core, is a form of exercise and storytelling that originated with the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand.
“The definition, for a Maori, of ‘poi’ is a ball on a string,” says Ataahua Papa, of the Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre of New Zealand and herself a Maori, who is now based in New York. “Originally, it was used by men, developed for warriors in training, to help them develop strength in their upper arms. Over the years, of course, poi has gone through a number of changes. It didn’t initially involve fire, but it’s about innovation — people taking the initiative and creating things that are different, to keep people interested in the art form.”
Poi (and fire spinning in general) still claims fringe status in the Boston area, its practice kept alive by a community of enthusiasts who literally play with fire. Most have experience or interest in circus arts, dance, or burlesque, and all straddle a dichotomous balance of laissez-faire sexuality and safety-obsessed front-of-the-math-class nerdery.