This past summer I devoted my free time to perfecting moves with names like the “buzz-saw,” “corkscrew” and “windmill” so when I performed with fire, hopefully I’d walk away unharmed. I had discovered fire poi — an obscure performance art from New Zealand — in the most unexpected place: northern Michigan.
I spent my summer working in a tourist town placed in the middle of northern Michigan’s expansive wilderness, and after we exhausted the town’s entertainment (which didn’t take long in a city designed for families that came, saw and bought souvenirs), my coworkers and I turned to a summer of projects and hobbies. Some tackled books, others learned to sew, many plowed through TV mini-series. I discovered fire poi.
Poi is a performance art native to the Maori culture and other indigenous populations of New Zealand. In the art, women spin balls attached to the end of a cord made from varying materials in a sort of dance. The Maori people pair this art with song, dance and storytelling. Original poi was made from native plants, but today there are many types including glow poi, flag poi and, of course, fire poi.
In my favorite variety, the balls are made from Kevlar wicks and the cord’s material is made from metal chain, and after the Kevlar has soaked in kerosene, the balls are set aflame. Often performed in the dark, artists throw, toss and twirl the fireballs around their bodies, creating the visual effect of a performer encompassed in personal little infernos where lines of flaming light seem to float in the air around them.
It was a coworker who got me into fire poi in the first place. Having spun fire for over a year, she performed on weekends in the most tourist-inundated district of town hoping to make some extra money. Watching a fire poi performance is always mesmerizing, but seeing it for the first time is indescribable. My colleague was extremely at ease. It was as though spinning fire within inches of her hair and face was the most natural thing in the world. She danced without care to techno music while effortlessly spinning blazing circles and flowers in the air with her poi, completely unaware of the crowd she was attracting.
Here I was, stuck in a bizarre city with 50 hotels and two streetlights, watching my friend perform an ancient Maori art. Who knew this would happen? All I knew was I had to try fire poi for myself.
I was quickly provided with a set of practice poi (nothing more than a pair of tennis balls stuffed into knee socks) and, for the next few weeks, spent the majority of my free time in front of a full-length mirror swinging the tennis balls at my sides and acquiring bruises. Eventually, my spastic motions grew smoother — I wasn’t hitting myself in the face (as often) and my bruises began to fade.
After a month of practicing with tennis balls, I tried fire and — because I escaped without burns — never looked back. The rush of spinning poi and sense of relief that spilled over me once the fire went out were the most satisfying feelings I have ever experienced.
Ever since that first time, my curiosity about poi has only grown. I started frequenting websites and forums for poi and found it has a pretty large following. What started as a cultural dance in New Zealand eventually made it to the United States and gained popularity as a staple means of expression in rave culture. Over time poi in the United States developed into a complex art with multiple styles and techniques. Performances are often paired with costumes and music, and performers travel all over the world to attend festivals and competitions.
The most skilled artists and performers treat the poi as simply an extension of their bodies, never losing track of exactly where the flames are and how the fire can be manipulated. I, for one, am not an artist. My moves are limited to just a few tricks: It takes me a long time to get comfortable with the weight of the fire poi (my practice pair is much lighter) and I’m still much more tense than I should be when I perform. Unfortunately, my learning progress has slowed considerably with the obligations of academia.
Still, poi is there when I need to forget about class or blow off some steam. Diverting myself from the complexities of the world with an exercise involving just me and the flame — or maybe even life and death, if you’re dramatic — greatly lessens the significance of my day-to-day tribulations. Maybe I’ll eventually get to the level of talent I aspire to reach. Until then, I’ll enjoy the unique adrenaline rush you can’t get anywhere else. My stumbling across this performance art was a fantastic accident that happened in the most unexpected of places. Intriguing, obscure art exists everywhere in many forms — it just won’t always involve fire.