By Russ Megowan

Crack! cries the firewhip as it unleashes a massive plume of fire and smoke into the air. The crowd goes wild. Crack! Another fiery plume rises into the air, leaving a smoky trail lingering in its wake.

For many, fire dancing is a novel party trick that appears at a range of gatherings from luaus in Hawaii to house parties around the world. Acting as a source of light, warmth, and entertainment for millions of years, fire transforms everything it touches for better or worse. While it clearly takes a level of self-confidence and bravery to study this art form, the culture, communities, gatherings and endless practice sessions that create these performances are largely unknown to the general public.

“Fire is such a mysterious element,” said Anthony Rutland, a Santa Cruz performer. Fire dancing gives Rutland a personalized form of expression on par with meditation. “It’s nothing that we have a whole lot of control over, and when you’re spinning fire, you kind of have control. Sometimes it can be spiritual as well. When I’m spinning fire, I forget about everything except what I’m doing then and there. It’s definitely an expression of yourself: Everything inside of you wants to come out, and you can just let go as you dance with the fire.”

While there is no absolute definition for fire dancing, it typically consists of an extensive number of toys and tricks, from fire breathing and eating to spinning swords and staves around one’s body in an effort to impress the crowd. Much of the art began with coastal tribes from the Polynesian Islands who used it for entertainment and ritualistic purposes.

Poi, a commonly seen fire prop, consists of a pair of chain and Kevlar wicks that are spun around in various patterns.

Its origin is the Maori people in New Zealand, who used balls on ropes made from whatever could be found within nature.

It was not used with fire but rather was used as a means to increase strength and flexibility, and doubled as percussion instruments when hitting against various parts of one’s body.

Today, the use of poi and other performance props has drastically evolved.

The Internet has played a large role in this, as many people from around the world have been able to share ideas about how to perform certain moves — like swinging the poi over your head — or find inspiration for choreographed performances.

“I watch a lot of performances and lessons over the Internet,” Local fire performer Dyami Kaplan said. “It gives you access to a lot of expertise for learning specific moves that may not be available from other local performers.”

By contrast, some performers do not like to name or categorize their movements.

“I hate it when people learn fire moves,” said Ayala Kalisher, another local performer. “People ask, ‘Can you do this and that?’ For me, it’s less about the moves and more about the movement.”

Susan Hillhouse, curator for the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, cited Burning Man as an instrumental event in the evolution of fire arts in general.

“You don’t have the kinds of spaces to play with fire in Santa Cruz like you do at Burning Man, and there isn’t much to burn out in the desert,” Hillhouse said. “As a result, it has significantly influenced the technology and techniques used in the fire arts.”

Some of the people influenced by Burning Man have created their own similar festivals around the world, further spreading awareness of fire art.

But what inspires people to spin fire in the first place?

“I saw it at a festival, and everyone out there just looked so cool, and I wanted to be able to do that,” Kalisher said. “They all looked like they should’ve been superheroes out of a comic book manipulating that fire.”

Along with the fact that fire performance is much appreciated by both sexes, Kalisher’s desire to spin fire “like a rock star” is a common motivation for fire dancing.

With a number of fire troupes based out of Santa Cruz, the area claims a mixture of professionals and hobbyists who freely collaborate and share ideas to progress their work.

One recently formed fire-dancing group, Fire University Santa Cruz, was created by Kalisher to try and get local fire spinners of all skill levels to gather weekly.

“I was inspired by the Fire University in Davis to try and build a fire community here,” she said. “When I moved back to Santa Cruz recently, a lot of local performers that spin fire in Santa Cruz told me that the public gatherings had disappeared and no one had any motivation to recreate them, so I brought Fire University here.”

The group has weekly spin jams on Sunday nights at the Westcliff lighthouse, which have gone over well with local residents.

“Everyone is welcome, regardless of skill,” Kalisher said. “We put a show on for the community and try to build a more unified fire community. You’ll see families with their kids enjoying the performance.”

Fire University has seen a recent surge in activity, as about twenty people came to watch on Jan. 20.

Nick Pacé, a local Santa Cruz resident, heard about the gatherings from a friend and said he was rather impressed by the show.

“I think it’s a beautiful sight to see these fire performances in the middle of winter under the moonlight,” Pacé said. “It’s like taking the kids out to the beach for a picnic, but better.”

The Santa Cruz community seems largely supportive of the gatherings as a fun outing on the weekends, and thus far there have been no complaints from nearby residents.

While the fire arts are accepted in Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Fire Department takes a preventative stance on fire dancing.

“Generally, we ask the performers to stop performing and explain that they need a permit to be able to perform in public,” said fire investigator Mark Ramos. “Most of the time, the performers willingly comply and proceed to obtain a permit. So long as they are safe about it and know what they’re doing, I think it has a positive impact on the community. But for those who aren’t, they ruin it for the rest of the performers and have a negative impact on the community.”

For most experienced performers, personal fire safety is rarely a problem. But in some cases, some of the safety guidelines like keeping people far enough from the performer can be useful for repelling drunken onlookers from certain peril.

“At a performance at Burning Man, I was about to perform and I had my wicks soaked with fuel, and then this woman came up to me and said she wanted to spin,” Kaplan said. “I thought it’d be OK since she looked like she knew what she was doing. But when she lit them up, she was getting into everyone’s space and even threw one of my poi into the audience. The fire safety crew was pretty pissed off about it.”

For the most part, the fire community in Santa Cruz appears very welcoming and friendly, but there are some cases where elitism negatively affects new students.

“When people light up at a party or a park, I can usually join in, but there are some uppity people that I think of as the ‘fire mafia,’” said Melissa Goray, a Santa Cruz fire hoop dancer of four months. “They are rather condescending when it comes to getting help.”

Considering the difficulty of achieving a skill level in the fire arts and the meager salary professional performers make from a scarce number of paid gigs, it’s no surprise that some people would rather keep their trade secrets to themselves. Fortunately, this does not appear to be the general mentality of fire performers and most are more than happy to share their discoveries with whomever wants to learn.

As for future events, Fire University will continue to host weekly spin jams and is planning a fire props workshop for anyone who wishes to get help making fire toys.

“I like to make my own tools, and believe that if you’re going to spin fire, you should know how to make and fix your own tools,” Kalisher said. “A bunch of us who know how to make different props are going to get together, order Kevlar and materials in bulk and charge the material cost. We just want to get more people involved in the fire arts.”