Archives for posts with tag: fire

Guest blog by Fenix-cofounder

History of the fire swords

Flaming F
Saturday morning while I was waiting for my wife to get up, I was watching a show on The History Channel called “Forged in Fire”.
They take blade smiths and have them make various different weapons that they then abuse and declare a winner based on who’s retains an edge, doesn’t break, etc.
(Cut coconuts, smash ice, hit rocks, etc.)

Looking at previous episodes of the show, I found that the very first person who won the first episode is a person who used to make swords for our sword troupe. That was back when he was the M in MP metalworks.

There was a time, more than 10 year ago now, where about half the swords the troupe used were made by him:

Of the 6 different fire swords the troupe has used over the last 14 years, he made 4 of them.
OK, it’s really 4 of 6 ½, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

It didn’t even start with us.
The sword group my wife and I were in before Phoenix Swords had broken apart badly. It was 14 years ago and there are still people mad at each other about it. (I’m one of them.)
At least 4 different groups formed out of the 35 members of that old troupe.
Phoenix Swords is the only one of those still going.

One of the others was one of the two founders of that previous group. He wanted to get into fire performance. He was a very good performer who came up with excellent ideas for ways to perform. (And, many bad ones too.)
But, he just wasn’t very good at running a group. Even when it was just him in the group.
So, we worked out something where he would perform with Phoenix Swords, but remain independent of our group.

He came up with the idea for the very first of our fire swords. He went to M at MP Metalworks with his idea and M built him a prototype.
It is a regular sword modified to be a fire sword. Other than the modifications, it looks just like a regular sword.
Our friend who designed it only had the one built. He didn’t sword fight with it, he just danced with it.
As far as I know, he only did one show with it:

Then, he quit performance. Sadly, we had booked several fire shows for him that he now didn’t want to do. So, that is how Phoenix Swords got into fire shows.
And, I did end up with that very first fire sword. Fire sword Zero is what we used to call it.

M liked the sword he had modified and decided to build a pair of fire swords from the ground up.
Two of our members (A & R) bought them and we added them to our growing fire show.

They looked cool. The hilts were bent up with little flame shapes. The pommels on the bottom were also cut to look like flames.
This made them horribly dangerous as it put a sharp point on the bottom edge of the swords. I can’t count how many times those bottom points cut someone using them.

A&R didn’t work out all that well for our troupe and ended up leaving.
They took their fire swords with them. They had paid for them, not us, and I didn’t like the design anyhow.

Tom had M make a new fire sword for him.
It was a monster. Almost 6 feet long (180cm) and covered in flame, not a lot of folks were willing to have him swing it at him. I usually ended up doing the sword fight with him using the original prototype myself.
At least it had a round pommel and not the pointy ends.

Sadly the swords really weren’t up for being used as fire swords. The heat of the fire caused them to warp.
Tom’s big one had a particularly bad bend one show where my wife had to run onto the field and take it away from him with the fire proof blanket. (It worked for the show as I was supposed to be fighting him for revenge for him beating my wife. So the audience loved her stealing his fire sword…)

There had been another sword group located in Kansas that we worked with from time to time until they broke up.
One of their members made swords. When he did some of the shows with us, he looked at the fire shows and said “I could do that better”.

So, in 2007 he made us two new fire swords. They were of the same basic concept of the previous swords, but more proportional to the swords we used in our regular shows.

The very first show we used them in, the one I was using broke off at the hilt on the second hit.
This led to the “I’m not Aragorn” incident at the post office:
He didn’t ask for the blade back, just the handle. So, I’m not sure if I should count that as a fire sword repaired or an additional fire sword. That’s why I say we’ve had 6 ½ of them in the troupe.

Either way, the broken one was replaced and it has held up very well for the last 9 years.

The hilt did break off last year, but Cosmicirony was able to fix it for us.

Looking back at it all, it is strange to me to see the person who made those original swords, that were dangerous to the user and bent when being used for what they were made to do, and see him win a sword making competition. Especially as the final test was they fired a bullet at the edge of the sword he made to see if the blade would split it in two without breaking.
It did!
I was surprised. His old swords would never have lived through that.
But, it has been more than a dozen years too.

I guess practice makes perfect.
12 years of practice seems to have helped!


safety Stop! In the name of love safety!

Every time I get a chance I say big “Thank You” s to the folks who support a fire show.   Spotters are the people at fire performances  who handle putting stuff out and keeping people safe. They have many duties and it’s a tough job.

One group once told me that having spotters obvious to an audience was a sign of unprofessionalism and I felt compelled to disagree.  It’s is absolutely dangerous and if I’m on fire, the closer my personal putter-outer is, the happier I am. Here’s an example of how it can go wrong-when the host of a kid’s program sets himself ablaze.

In the photo above is there a spotter in the pic for a Phoenix Swords show?  Yes, and we can all live with it.

For the first few years of the troupe, I was one of the primary spotters. Mistakes are part of the territory but prime spotters will be good risk-assessment people. I’d rather be doing a ‘derp’ moment for accidentally grabbing a hot prop with fingerless gloves than ever put a performer at risk. (Not a mistake I made twice) Here are some things spotters need to know.

Communicate ALWAYS.   One of the items we can whip up on the back of a napkin if need be is everyone’s job on the stage. We have a stage chart that is standard  for EVERY JOB with places for the primary safety person, performers waiting to go on, fuel and how to move onstage.  On the show-by show chart we break jobs down by person, tool, who is fueling, who is a spotter and who is in charge of music (excel spreadsheets are great for this) Before we go on, everyone knows what is what and we ask and we do dry runs. We even have a default spot for live musicians when we get them-out of the way!  We have protocols for “you’re on fire stop spinning!” and a number of other emergencies but sometimes people panic and we have protocols in place for that as well. Fire has particular issues that swords never do, not the least of which is night blindness and being physically unable to hear anything over roaring flames. It’s important to drill, drill, drill.

Be ready to take a faceful and stand your ground-don’t take it personally. I’ve had to fight with fire performers and  although they are ultimately responsible for their own safety in performance, I will do my bulldog impression if it means a safer show, regardless of how cool something might be alight. I’ve had performers bark at me because their favorite torch wasn’t in place when it was in their right hand. I’ve had people snap at me when I moved a hot tool so it didn’t start the grass on fire and I’ve gone to the mat about certain fuels.  I’m not here to be a servant, I’m here to be a safety and if you want to be a pain about it-that’s your prerogative.  I’ll be a pain in the ass right back, everyone’s security is riding on it.

You can’t be all things. My job is to support performers. Sometimes that’s hug performers, feed performers, wet down performers, massage performers, get their favorite tools and be a sounding board. But sometimes I get busy and my priority list may not be your priority list.  I have a particular stare I’ve been known to give when someone complains about the fuel I’ve purchased on short notice  or that their favorite fuel-dispensing  method has been changed. I try my best to wear a lot of hats in a short time if we have a small number of performers. And this gets a little more crazy if I have to go on stage as well (see excel spreadsheet where I’ve written your name!)  and I’m fueling my own tools.   Admittedly, we spoil some of our performers, but they give good show and that’s what we are here to do. But still not your mommy. Whine too much-be the subject of some good-natured ribbing from your fellows.


I include this photo just because it is one of my favorites of three excellent human beings who should avert their eyes about the next paragraph.

Fire breathers are a special case.   Fire breathers are often the center of attention in a room, it’s their personalities-they take fuel and light it on fire while blowing it out of a face hole. That they are willing to do that tells you about them in a nutshell.  Their levels of personal safety and that of others are in different galaxies and they are the ones I butt heads with most often.  When we do fire shows and do fire-breathing-each breather gets a personal, specially trained  safety plus anyone else who is free. We don’t combine fire-breathing with any other moving activity (note we’ve been known to have stationary fire carefully arrayed around them for a big finale) And I actually have  a special “fire-breather kit” that I put together for shows because they often arrive, ready to do their thing, without equipment or fuel. They say it’s because they know I’ll have it,  but there have been times I’ve had to do some last-minute improvisation because I hadn’t expected them to do the trick. Do I want to try it myself someday? I do.  I practice aspiration and expelling but just can’t take that last step! But if you are asking which of the fire performers I am giving the special eye? It’s these guys in the picture above..


Another example of “spot the spotter” blocking wind so a performer may fire-eat in high winds.

Least glamorous job ever but one of the most important.  Some folks might argue that one has to be a good fire performer to be a good spotter. I disagree. They have to aware of how fire works,  good safety and prompt responses. If anything, I’ve found that performers are a little more tolerant of risky behaviors and less focused. It’s a question of interest and thought process. A performer is watching the act, a spotter is watching bodies and fire. Good spotters understand night blindness,  how to spot restive audience members and are not interested in making nice.  I’ve rebuked spotters for being too full of themselves during a show, they are not the feature. But they are the ones who will carefully walk behind a performer who has left wisps of grass burning, putting it out without drawing attention to themselves.   Or reach around a joking performer and put out a clothing patch. And they do it for no glory, no tips and little recognition except for grateful performers. When you clap, be sure to think of them 🙂


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.