Feeling the heat

A fire dancer's outlook on life: If you get burned, you don't stop dancing.

fire dancer 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
fire dancer 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
From a distance, the deep drum thuds call your attention to swirls of fire lighting up the evening sky. It's Friday evening on Tel Aviv's Drum Beach, just after sunset, and as you approach, the drum beats are filled out with other instruments: fiddles, guitars, trumpets, flutes, shofarot and even bagpipes, strumming out improvised strains of "Shalom Aleichem." It's magical! Drum Beach turns luminous as astonished onlookers are hypnotized by a sudden mass of flames twirling around the dancers like friendly fireflies. All of the fire dancers light their equipment in unison from the same central flame to show that every fire dancer is equal regardless of his or her skill level. Even more amazing is the seeming tranquility displayed by the individual fire dancers who wield the flames. These artists hold mankind's oldest enemy, fire, in their hands, yet display no fear. Over here, one fire twirler might be meditating over two short fire sticks while over there, another sways serenely with her fire poi to the music. One might joyfully display hoola-hoop skills, while another jumps emphatically over his fire stick. Quite fearless, the atmosphere around the fire gathering is energetic, almost electric, with joy and celebration. Fire dancing, also known as "fire twirling," "fire spinning," "fire juggling" or "playing with fire," is a fast-growing art form practiced all over the world. The idea of a group in Israel dedicated to fire dancing may have originated overseas where, in many places - such as Scotland, England, France, the USA and Australia - gatherings organized specifically for fire juggling have been running successfully for over 20 years. Here in Israel, fire dancers and jugglers have been gathering at Drum Beach to dance to the Friday afternoon percussion jam sessions for more than 13 years. For the past two, a more specialized gathering, focused entirely on fire dancing, has also been meeting there once a month (except during winter). This year's "Fire gatherings" began on a warm and enchanted evening in late February, with artists from all over the country meeting and swapping fire dancing ideas. The next session will be held at the Drum Beach on Friday, April 18. Israel's fire dancing community is growing rapidly. As 16-year-old professional fire twirler Asaf Mor, of Ra'anana, testifies, "At the Israeli juggling convention in 2006, there were 5-10 spinners. In 2007, there were a lot more and their [skill] level was higher." Galgal Esh (his performer name), a 34-year-old fire dancer and tour guide who lives in Jaffa, also attests that while he knows of over 150 fire twirlers in Israel, only 30-40 made it to any one fire gathering in 2007. This, however, was a vast improvement over the previous year's turnout. This year, the fire gatherings hope to attract even more spinners, for, as Galgal Esh puts it, "When one person plays with fire, it's nice. When there are two, it's doubly nice. Thirty-40 people is amazing. Over 100 - there would be no words to describe the energy." In Israel, the highly-skilled fire dancing community is particularly close-knit and friendly. Galgal Esh emphasizes that fire twirlers come from all age groups and walks of life, from those with "serious jobs" to the more "free-spirited." Fire twirlers tend to get along well despite their different backgrounds because they have fire dancing and respect for one another's artistic expression in common. "I've never met a fire twirler I didn't like," explains Mor. Newcomers are always welcomed with gusto. Leanna Peled Rozen, a 27-year-old classical ballet instructor and fire dancer, recalls her fear when she first started fire twirling. She began two years ago when she saw a man fire-twirling at a festival and asked him how to do it. He immediately gave her a few spontaneous lessons with a practice set of sock poi and directed her toward the Drum Beach gatherings. Just like Rozen, "everyone who does anything with fire, or any kind of juggling tool, is more than welcome" at the fire gatherings, invites Galgal Esh - one of the original participants. "The more people, the better we will get," he adds. Fire dancing itself also touches on many metaphorical allusions, such as "playing with fire," "dancing in the fire" and "mastering Prometheus's gift." They mostly deal with overcoming the danger that close proximity to fire represents and learning to dance with the flames. This is, however, far from a simple "allusion" for Israel's fire dancing community. "I think fire twirling… shows Israel has a different side," ponders Rozen, choosing her words deliberately. "It's about the most a-political thing you can do. You don't care about who is right and wrong, but about just having a good time. At the beach, we have Arabs, Christians and Jews. We welcome everybody. It doesn't depend on specific ideas or identities. It's hard to think of it as a [fire dancing] community when really, it's a family." Regardless, some may still harbor a number of burning questions, such as: "Isn't it dangerous to play with fire?" or possibly, "Don't fire dancers get burnt?" Rozen scowls, reminding us that "life burns you, too, and you take it. You don't stop dancing just because you're injured!" But, she reveals, "after you burn your hair, you smell like a chicken!" Galgal Esh laughs in reply to the oft-asked "Is the fire hot?" "If someone finds a cold fire, please let me know," he says. Galgal Esh explains that when fire dancing, he is very conscientious not to catch fire. He wears clothes made from 100 percent natural fibers, which are more flame-retardant than synthetic clothing, puts a bandanna over his hair and keeps a wet towel nearby, just in case. Besides getting burnt, other drawbacks of fire dancing include inhaling smoke fumes from the chemicals used to fuel the fire as well as considerable expenses associated with buying and maintaining the required equipment. Galgal Esh adds that in over 13 years of public fire dancing on Drum Beach, there have been no serious incidents. This was confirmed for Metro by a spokesperson for the Tel Aviv police. The lack of incidents from this potentially hazardous sport can be largely attributed to the high consideration the dancers give to fire safety. Galgal Esh explains that "we may not all be serious people, but we… are all very serious about fire safety and [our] responsibility to ourselves and to those around us." So, considering all the danger and expense involved, why do people still fire-twirl? For one thing, all the fire twirlers asked attested to their improved fitness, flexibility, multi-dexterity and coordination. Galgal Esh, for example, happily confirms that "eight years ago, I used my right hand for 99% of my actions. Now I use both." They also warn that fire dancing is great fun - and therefore highly addictive - so may lead to obsessive juggling. Primarily, though, most fire dancers see fire dancing as an artistic outlet and as a form of contemplative meditation. "Your canvas is three-dimensional and you paint it with fire," Rozen describes simply, directing an oddly wistful glance at the ceiling. This contemplation is what shows in the dancers' serene and joyful expressions. This, so they claim, is where the magic comes from. If you would like to learn more about fire dancing, the next gathering will be held on Tel Aviv's Drum Beach on Friday, April 18. You can log onto any of the following Web sites: http://gallery.drumbeach.co.il/ www.homeofpoi.com http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=86666538&blogID=305786805 http://fire-in-israel-12-10-06.blogspot.com/ http://www.ijc.co.il/