As some of you know, Phoenix Swords does a fire show in addition to the swords. Over a decade ago, there were not as many performance and prop groups out there. Or at least not very mainstream. Thanks to Cirque De Soleil and Burning Man and every movie that needs a fire breather for “Ambiance,” knowledge about fire, fire performance and fire safety is far more available these days. In any case if you ask to do fire acts my first response is “don’t.” My second is “well, at least do it safely.” This blog is not about resources or training, it’s about what it means to decide to play with fire.

One of our initial fire performers with Phoenix used to do our fire introduction with new members who wanted to do fire. We found it was instructive to have a performer who had actually  set himself  aflame to warn how bad it could be. At my request, he wrote it down (the full story is available publicly if you know where to look) This occurred when he was part of another group, his own words;


My breath of fire ends and I feel the painful vacuum of a thoroughly exhausted repertory system. Sadly I also feel a quarter mouth full of fuel. I turn away from the torch to spit the fuel and reach for the glass of water behind me…. An experienced fire spitter might have had a second thought about wind direction right then, if I had had a moment I might have. Right then My body rejected its combustible guest coughing and spiting the wad of fuel and saliva all over my self. The fumes of fuel wafting past my face as thin as they are, are sufficient to catch the torch in the other hand ‘which was at least four feet from the cough’ with the speed of stupidity the flames race along a tract of fumes back to their source. If only that source had not been my face.

All our lives we are taught that should you ever catch fire stop drop and role. As useful as that sound I is the least practical piece of propaganda ever written. The shock value of catching your head on fire super seeds learned responses activating the instinctual mind In this instance overwhelming it when the only thing you can see is fire the only thing to do is close your eyes and wait for the end. Another funny thing happens, the rational mind is still running not going anywhere but running and unencumbered by the decision making process it goes into high gear thousands of thoughts happen at once and you are aware of them all, As though knowledge of your coming demise encouraged them to get as much out before the building collapses.

In the real world a few practiced conditioned responses are engaged by my shocked mind. I hold the wet rag over my mouth and nose to prevent fire from getting in. Good idea right, would have been if I had rinsed the rag after each spit. Instead I am holding a fuel soaked rag against my face. Some part of my mind gets that but can’t veto the original thought of cover your mouth. I also drop the torch, which would seem like logic if I weren’t stumbling around like an idiot kicking over the jar of fuel.

So here I am [FnF] the human match dancing in a puddle of fire before a macabre audience of awe struck ax wielding barbarians. And I think “what an embarrassing way to die.” At about that instant I am tackled from the right by a drunken pirate captain and from the left by a velvet clad jester. Behind me an Asian battle princess throws a bucket she expects to be full of water, to find out it contains a wet towel. The Guys wrap my head in their puffy sleeves extinguishing me……

So after my brush with death. The crowd of curious onlookers gathers around to check out the carnage. These are the people who slow down at a traffic accident to see if there is a body; useless to the victim and a nuisance at best to any one actively trying to help. I am in too much pain to ward them away as they examine the blisters that have formed around the edges of my nostrils, and along my ears, and the mosaic or red and white flesh in between. My friends find wet rags and soda cans which are sadly the only source of cold we have available. My brother- the jester who put me out, piles me into the car and speeds off to the hospital which is in this case a long ways off. Half way there my soda has reached urine like temperatures. The pain comes with waves of nausea, and by the psychological inertia of trauma I can’t take away the rag and can on my face.

If you’ve read that, know that he survived with only second-degree burns, has a small scar on his cheek and occasionally still does fire acts, and even breathing. But this is the first part of anyone who wants to work with fire has to hear. After that, we make them  take this test.  This lets us open up a dialogue about what is really involved with safe fire use.

The second way to suss out if someone is suited to fire performance is to have them go through the act of working with fire. I have seen people who thought they were fully prepared and ready,  scream  and throw  tools down (a good, healthy reaction actually) On the flip side I have seen someone who said “no way” step in and be one of the best instinctive spotters we have. (def: Spotter, person who maintains safety and puts out lit performers, objects and stages during a performance, your vernacular may vary. We just say “safety.”) There is no way to tell until under careful, controlled circumstances  how anyone’s “Monkey Brain” will respond.  We use the term “Monkey Brain” quite a bit, not in a derogatory way but to indicate that sane, median people generally don’t gravitate to things that can hurt them, their inner primate has alarm bells built into it.  I’ve had this discussion with my cousin the police officer and when he laughed about how I was mentally broken, I had to point out that when someone calls about shots fired or violence he answers
“I’ll be right there!” So really it’s about your personal measurement of risk.

Here’s a question everyone should ask-not IF I will burn myself but WHEN I burn myself, what will I do? Because no matter how good you are, fire, environment and fuels are variable. For those of you familiar with industry standards,  1% failure rate is not an acceptable risk. And if there was NEVER failure, cars wouldn’t break down, planes wouldn’t crash…you get the idea. Working safely with fire is minimizing risk, but ultimately YOU are responsible for YOU and with whom you work. I’ll go into procedures in another blog entry but there is never a “just this once we won’t…” exceptions being small tricks in which three safety members would be less safe and more Three Stooges.

Read that far? Good, let’s assume that you’ve practiced, you’re comfortable and ready to go. Are you ready for an audience? It’s much like a multi-tiered puzzle box-new level of complexity.  Will your audience respect the rules?  Are you carrying fuels safely from place to place, are they secure? And environments change quickly.  We have one stage that we use that is  sometimes quite windy but I appreciate it because it has a clear audience demarcation and is made of concrete. At this point you have exceeded what you can think about as a performer. In Phoenix, the performer is not asked to assess this. Their job is to get on stage, stay safe and focused and get off stage.  The safety people are our backbone, they  are what makes it possible to go onstage and be great.

So what has happened to me as a performer? My own experience is multiple burns and a great safety team.

When the percentages went against me:

  • Unknown hole in my fire pants, underwear lit and I had to have my butt put out. (meteors)
  • Grabbing a hot fire sword forgetting I was wearing a fingerless glove.
  • Having a knee give out and I toppled backwards, fell, my tool bounced back, hit my eye, bounced out. I suffered only some singed eyebrows  and a shiner. (meteors)
  • Not tilting far enough back during fire eating, seared nose hair-very odiferous.

And the final part: getting burnt, accepting it is a part of what to expect, getting up and finishing the act, continuing to do fire without regrets. I don’t have enough fingers to count how many people have NOT made it past this last step.

But some of you are saying
“Fire is so sexy! How have you made it so unsexy!”
Fire is sexy, and scary and can do harm to more than just you. And if you flirt with danger, sometimes danger is a bad date and you should be careful. I’m not saying that if this is your calling, forget it . I understand the siren song is strong and if you are good at it, well it puts you in a smaller segment of the population.  But I am saying go at it with a clear mind, specific intention and a REALLY good safety-because at least one smart person should be around when you push down all those clever instincts and do the unthinkable.

Who else has something to say on the subject?
Home of Poi

North American Fire Arts Association

Boston Spinners

Worcester Spin Jam

Note: We do take people and teach them fire use BUT we also require a year of commitment because we have no interest in training our competition. 🙂

As always, feel free to contact me.