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Local group practices art of fire spinning

BY LAURA WILLIS | DECEMBER 02, 2010 7:20 AM

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Juliet Reid slowly dips a fire poi into fuel. A ball attached to the end of a metal chain quickly catches fire. Tightening a lime green cap on her wavy brown hair, she waits for the electronic music to play. Gracefully, she begins to dance. Her head bops to the music as she circles her arms high above her head, the flames mere inches from her face.

She doesn't seem to mind as specks of fire fall onto her clothes. Because she wears a cotton shirt, it is less likely that the material will melt onto her skin. With caution and poise, she continues her dance as the heat warms up a small group of observers.

"There's something incredibly gratifying about poi," Reid said. "It's kind of like yoga. You lose stress the more you practice."

The 23-year-old University of Iowa student is a part of Iowa City's "burner" community. From weekly summer gatherings in College Green Park to upcoming classes, fire spinning has gradually become a recognized art form in Iowa City.

Fire spinning has been greatly influenced by the traditional fire dancing of New Zealand's Maori tribes hundreds of years ago. Each tribe used the dance for storytelling or to improve coordination. The trend spread to other countries, such as Germany and England, and it has made its way to Iowa City.

Reid saw the dance when studying abroad in Mexico last summer — she watched street performers use fire pois and exchanged ideas with them to expand her ability.

"It's a global movement," she said.

The Cultural Corridor was first introduced to fire dance in 2003, when Ashley Bertling helped form FIOWA, consisting of some beginners who were learning how to master the art of poi. They casually met once a week in College Green Park to practice.

"I learned that [Hula-Hooping] was something that you could light on fire," Bertling said. "That had an edge that I was drawn to."

Members gradually dispersed, including Bertling, who moved to Chicago in 2005. There, she saw a professional fire performance troupe at a music festival and was inspired to start her own group.

"I was a fire dancer," she said. "I didn't know any other fire dancers aside from FIOWA. I thought we were the only people who spun fire in the entire world."

After the show, Bertling spoke with a member of the fire troupe who explained the group's mechanics.

Eager to begin spinning again, she collaborated with a friend to form Pyrotechniq, a nine-member fire-performance troupe with members from Iowa City and Chicago.

The group typically performs twice a month for a variety of events in different cities. It will perform at a 6-year-old's birthday party next Saturday and at a heavy-metal show later this month.

The 10- to 30-minute dance doesn't change, but the music and costumes do. At a children's show, the troupe performs in brightly colored or polka-dot material as light music plays. At a heavy-metal show, darker music matches the black and gray clothing.

For venues that don't allow fire displays, Pyrotechniq offers belly dancing and ultraviolet black-light performances. The troupe emphasizes that each member has years of experience and is, more importantly, fully insured.

Some members have experienced minor burns, but none have been seriously injured while performing.

Besides insurance, the professional fire troupe needs approval from fire marshals before each performance.

"There is a lot of practicing that goes in," Bertling said. "Safety measures are not taken lightly."

Pyrotechniq member Kyle Ford was introduced to fire spinning in 2003 at a music festival in Harmony Park, Minn. He became engrossed with the subculture by listening to electronic music and seeing numerous routines at festivals. He returned to Iowa and practiced his technique by spinning socks filled with tennis balls in his bedroom. He joined Pyrotechniq four years later.

"It's fun spinning to music, learning different concepts, and ways to develop your craft," he said. "It's very open to creativity."

Hoping to bring the Pyrotechniq environment to Iowa City, Ford collaborated with two friends, Corey Hanson and Chris Fisher, to re-create the once weekly fire-spinning event in College Green Park. A gathering was held every Thursday night last summer, and now the group meets at once a week at different venues in the area, such as Core Fitness. Ten fire spinners meet almost every week, the youngest participants being two brothers, each 10 years old.

"The culture has grown quite a bit," said fire spinner RheAnnon Shipp. "When I first started, no one even really heard of hooping. Now I see people everywhere hooping. It's really a beautiful thing."

Like Ford, Shipp learned about fire spinning and hooping at a music venue. She started practicing with a simple Hula-Hoop at age 16 and later added fire after mastering tricks. She has since performed at local festivals, including the Earth Dance festival and Fractal Fields in 2009. At each event, she said, it is easy to learn new hoop tricks from others.

"There are so many people who have so many different styles that they incorporate with their hooping," she said.

While summer has faded and the group can no longer perform outside, Bertling has transformed her living room into a homemade dance studio. She took out the furniture and ripped out the ceiling fan. She lined the walls with mirrors and toys, which include a fire poi, belt, Hula-Hoop, and umbrella.

"I have taken this from a hobby into a passion," she said. "It is something that has become another piece of me."


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