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Bewitched by the fire

First captivated at Burning Man, newcomers now spin their own poi. It's a traditional practice -- set aflame.

September 11, 2006|Stephen Krcmar | Special to The Times

STANDING barefoot and nervous on the beach, just minutes after the sun has slipped past the horizon, Iris Perez takes a deep breath and slides her fingers through the loops attached to two 21-inch chains. From each chain dangles a marshmallow-sized ball.

She's been practicing with the balls -- known as poi -- for weeks, learning to twirl them so fast and so smoothly they look like wings fluttering over her head and around her body. She's practiced until her arms, legs and abs ached, occasionally sending one of the balls spinning into her head -- or against her body. But gradually, she's gotten better. She can make the balls spin in the same direction -- or away from each other. She can perform moves with names such as "butterfly," "angel" and "moth." And she can transition from one to another on the fly.

But tonight is different. For the first time, she will set her poi on fire.

Once the province of an invitation-only "fire scene," spinning fire poi has taken its first early steps toward the mainstream. And, like moths, wannabe poi dancers across Southern California are being drawn to the flames.

The Burning Man counterculture festival alone can be credited for introducing much of today's audience to fire poi and the related "fire arts," with dancers wielding the flaming balls while performing underneath the iconic effigy.

Perez entered the fire scene after seeing photos of Burning Man performances. "You see these photographs and they look like fire gods and goddesses playing with these things," the 24-year-old audio freelancer says.

But in July, dancer Tonya Kay was a contestant on the show "America's Got Talent," spinning poi and advancing to the semifinals. Hollywood films such as "Van Helsing," "Vanity Fair" and "The Reckoning" have also featured fire poi. And a new exercise-focused DVD by Kay, plus organized lessons at schools such as Indra Yoga in Los Angeles are expected to entice even more newbies.

"We get a lot of people who do go to Burning Man. They go there, they see the fire dancing, and they're like, 'I've got to learn that,' " said Hannah Mooney, a poi and yoga instructor at Indra Yoga. "A lot of people also are more, like, the yoga, martial-arts types of people who want to learn to move an object around their body in a moving, meditative way."

For Perez and others, the appeal is more visceral. "There's always that slight fear of fire and approaching that fear and controlling that is very appealing," she said.

But poi and flames are not traditionally linked.

Maori cultural roots

Poi, which translates to "ball" in Maori, has been used for generations by the indigenous people of New Zealand, both for practical and artistic purposes. Historically, women swung these balls as a form of exercise, one that increased flexibility and developed coordination -- keeping their fingers nimble for weaving.

Men also spun poi -- but in workouts designed to develop the coordination and strength needed for hand-to-hand combat. They often used poi with longer ropes than women would typically use, making the ball more difficult to control and increasing the necessary skill level. Stones were sometimes added for weight and to make the workout more demanding.

Although the Maori did use the poi in dances -- those held before men went off to war -- they didn't light their poi. Some in the fire community say that the practice began about 50 years ago, stemming from Polynesian performers' use of flaming staffs. Others attribute it to the ancient Chinese, who tossed bowls filled with flaming tar as weapons.

Regardless, the flaming poi variation is now regarded as a competitive -- and show-worthy -- art form, said Lynne Couillard, a 10-year veteran of the poi and fire scene. Using the name "Pele," she has performed, choreographed and taught fire poi all over the world.

Both the flaming and nonflaming versions yield the benefits sought by the Maoris and can be done by anyone just seeking a different type of workout for their triceps, biceps, shoulders and wrists.

If done properly, the core and legs also get an intense workout. Although styles vary, dance is part of the practice. Beginners usually stay in place initially, then they start to shuffle, ultimately finding a rhythm that allows them to move their feet while moving their hands. It takes about six weeks to learn a dozen basic moves.

Fire poi's appeal, however, goes beyond the physical benefits, with many practitioners finding it to be a form of active meditation.

Describing a fire poi dancer in action may say more about the viewer than the viewed. The fluid, circular movements can evoke rave-goers' glow sticks or hallucinogen-induced light trails. Sometimes the spinner dominates the poi and is very much the lead; at other times, the poi seems to be in control, with the spinner simply trying to catch up.

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