The Maori in New Zealand introduced the poi (a ball of woven flax on a string) as a tool in performance art, which would later influence various forms of fire dancing.
Samoan warriors showed fierce strength and courage with the fire knife dance. For the Aztec people of Mexico, fire dancing was deeply rooted in their ancient culture and the Balinese believe it helps expel bad spirits. Even Middle Eastern belly dancers feature fire in their routines.
Thanks to Wildfire Dancers in Dubai, co-founded by Monique Robinson of South Africa, fire dancing is now integrated into the local performing arts scene.
Fire dancing movement
Maori warriors are said to have used the poi to enhance storytelling through choreographed routines. It was also a training device to prepare for battle.
The modern fire knife dance springs from the centuries-old Samoan warrior knife dance, often with added acrobatic stunts and tricks such as fire-eating, fire-breathing and juggling.
The poi has also become an integral part of performances by the Wildfire Dancers.
"Fire dancing looks amazing. It's a unique way of manipulating movement through the body and requires coordination. It has become quite an art form and there are different levels including acrobats and jugglers," says Robinson.
Wildfire Dancers, founded in 2007, is made up of a permanent group of seven trained individuals. Performances, however, can include up to 20 professionals from around the UAE, depending on the event, which can range from festivals such as the UAE National Day parades to launch parties, beach parties, weddings and private functions. The company has performed across the region and around the world in countries such as the UK, South Africa and Spain.
"I've been fire dancing for more than 10 years," says Robinson. "Living in Cape Town, I used to watch a group of fire dancers on the beach and I became entranced by it and the element of danger. It looked like so much fun so I began practicing with them, first with the non-fire poi to learn the different tricks until I became confident."
Most of the members of the Dubai team have full-time jobs, including Robinson, an IT professional.
The fire dancers take on an average of two events per week and, since launching, Robinson has learnt to walk on stilts while performing fire tricks. The group also offers LED laser light shows.
"Most of the time we get treated like rock stars, so it's great," she says.
Safety and equipment
Before any event, the team makes it a point to visit the performance location to ensure all safety measures are in place.
"We are extremely professional and would never put ourselves or other people at risk; fire is a real concern and if you are not careful, you can burn yourself," Robinson says. "We also do not want to damage surroundings and take into consideration the direction of the wind, rain, foliage, space, flooring and any material that could possibly be flammable."
Depending on the size of the event and the number of performers, the company makes sure one or two fire safety officers are always present. Theofficers are there to make sure that all the equipment is in the proper place and the fire is put out correctly, to help performers change equipment and to look out for "suspect positions" that performers may find themselves in. A fire extinguisher, fire blanket and first-aid kit are always there.
"We have never had any serious physical burns because we are systematic in how we handle our equipment," says Robinson.
Tools used include fans for mystical dancing, special equipment to put fire on the body, ropes, poi for spinning, wands for eating fire, staffs for fast spinning and throwing into the air, jump ropes, swords for combat moves, hula hoops and fire cages for firework effects.
The local scene
"When I first arrived in Dubai, there was not much of a community. Fire shows, I would say, are still in their infancy but I feel very confident in the tricks," says Robinson. "But in South Africa, for example, it's a much bigger community, where fire dancers meet every week on the beach and it attracts at least 1,000 people every time."
However, she is reluctant to start that trend in Dubai because of various restrictions.
"There are people here with so much talent and we could start a similar community, but it's a shame, we need official permission which is not easy to get. We can't even always practice outside."
Despite hurdles, she says there is a noticeable increase in the number of fire dancers, which has created a "healthy competition" and they find each other either through social media or word of mouth.
"We have definitely developed a good client base, so we have a good supply of business. In general, the performing arts scene is becoming more creative, with event companies now open to new ideas," she says. "If rules on locations and permissions were relaxed a little, it would help more."
For more information on forthcoming shows or to book the performers, visit www.wildfiredancers.com