Play with fire

23 04 2008

by Leila Dougan

Fire dancers are not synonymous to pyromaniacs. Pyromaniacs play with fire to feel control over the element. Fire dancers play with fire to make it look beautiful.

Fire poi, one of the many forms of poi, originated in New Zealand and has since spread to areas all over the world, including Grahamstown.

A group of Rhodes University students have continued the art and are teaching others to dance with the otherwise dangerous element. They have organized fire poi workshops alongside African drumming sessions on a weekly basis. This is where I learnt how to fire poi and what follows is a brief fire poi guide. 

For me, the most difficult aspects of fire dancing were the co-ordination of the poi and learning how to dance with objects (on fire) in my hands. I overcame this by starting with practice poi, because it allows you to find the movement of the poi while experimenting with the movement of your body.

I suggest anyone wanting to learn fire poi start with practice poi. 

Practice poi can be made with two tennis balls and a pair of long socks. Push each tennis ball into the foot of each sock and tie a knot at the top end of the sock. A handful of sugar beans (which can be purchased at your local supermarket) is an alternative to the tennis balls. Anything soft that will not detract from the momentum of the poi will do.

Practice poi are really helpful because fire poi hurt (a lot) when they hit you. I gave myself a concussion when I started practicing with fire poi straight away.

After you have learnt a few movements and tricks comfortably with practice poi you can move onto fire poi. Fire poi are made from chain and wick. The wick part of the poi is soaked in kerosene or paraffin for 3-5 minutes; the excess paraffin is spun off the poi and then lit.

Be sure to get used to the weight of your fire poi before lighting up by practicing with unlit fire poi. Before using your unlit fire poi, wrap the wick area of the fire poi with cling-wrap to prevent the wick from fraying. Just don’t forget to take off the cling wrap before soaking and lighting the poi.


Here is a list of do’s and don’ts when playing with your fire poi:


DON’T do it alone. Always have someone around incase something goes wrong.

DON’T use gasoline. Kerosene or Paraffin is best to use.

DO learn some basic movements using practice poi before moving on to fire.

DO wear tight-fitting, non-flammable clothing that covers your arms and legs. Fire poi does not burn the skin because the flame generally bounces off, but the hair on your skin does burn, and it smells!

DO tie back long hair.

DO fire poi sober. After half a bottle of wine I set my (flammable) jersey and hair on fire.

DO practice fire poi outside.

DO spin off excess paraffin/kerosene before spinning your fire poi.

DO take breaks in between fire dancing and do not fire poi too often in one night because the fumes are unhealthy.


So now that you know how to start mastering the art of fire poi grab some socks, two tennis balls and start spinning.




One response

24 04 2008

Interesting post, Leila. But this is not a little student town, it’s a little town invaded by students.

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