Until last Wednesday, I was pretty sure that people who danced with fire were either can’t-let-go Burners unable to return to normal life the other 51 weeks of the year after Burning Man, or comprised of a group of the personality disordered -- or maybe both. In just three hours at a hillside home in Eagle Rock, what I instead found was a complex and impressive art form that is also a zen kind of therapy. Here’s how it went down...
It’s 6:48pm on a flawless, balmy night on a jaw-dropping deck and a stunning view overlooking Occidental College. Round Japanese paper lanterns suspended in low-hanging trees cast a glow revealing Lester Mooney and Samantha Taylor of Love in the Fire, an engaged couple who perform in fire for a living. They recently began teaching their craft from their new home. And I am here -- way, way out of my comfort zone -- to learn their wizardry. Class begins at 7.
I don’t have a specific, obsessive pyrophobia. It’s just that I don’t care for fire too close my skin, or my belongings, or my... anything.
And this is not my typical assignment. I am pretty sure I am the nerd among the Thrillist cool kids. Most of the stories I find involve some component of business policy and/or government obfuscation. Hours earlier, I broke a story for another media outlet about a Los Angeles-based diplomat seeking building-code exemptions for the rear of his home for supposed security reasons, even though the front is wide-open. I found it in city council documents. That’s my wheelhouse.
Lester looks a bit like the actor Dominic Monaghan, with a canvas Breton hat and an ultra-warm (no pun intended) demeanor. Samantha has a kind of high-boned patrician beauty – yet it’s patrician with flame-colored hair shaved on the sides, a midway nose ring, and tie-dyed patterned leggings. Even their dog, Axl Rose, is cool. He rocks a deep fuchsia faux hawk and seems to be an old soul, looking out over the hillside with deep thoughts.
Lester is clearly more the greeter. The effusive, here-is-what’s-going-on guy. Samantha is very welcoming, but lets Lester go on, seamlessly adding to his thoughts without interrupting. You can tell they’re partners (engaged this year after five years together) outside of their careers. Each a high school class valedictorian, there’s a shared brainy eloquence under the superfly showmanship.
After class, they share more of the color of their lives, including what it’s like in practical terms to be a fire dancer, logistics that you’ve probably never considered. Fun fact: You can negotiate airport security by convincing TSA your big bags of flammable gear in various shapes all contain juggling toys, because you’re a circus performer. “Do not mention fire. TSA does not. Like. Fire,” emphasizes Samantha, who tells me you can help yourself out in the inspection process by putting a sock over the end of the staffs -- poles with flammable ends like giant, black, double-ended matches -- so they don’t make the connection.
I suddenly wish my pants didn’t have polyester in them. I could become a walking death curtain. But, as it turns out, I actually won’t be working with fire right away. First I have to learn the moves and the tools with confidence. Tonight the tools I will learn are poi and staff, in back to back classes, along with returning students who’ve been here on previous Wednesdays.
It’s fire dancers’ tools, most of them black so that they appear invisible when lit, that create the illusion of fire spinning, cascading, cresting, sparkling, and wending their way around the agile performers who’ve mastered them. The couple helps sell them on Fire Groove Gear, where students can pick up their own set.
Poi looks something like a racquetball stitched into the end of a tube sock. They remind me of the weaponry of Homey the Clown (In Living Color forever!). In the same circular thwack Homey would deploy on anyone who expected him to actually behave like a clown and entertain them, I landed a couple bonks on my own forehead and shin -- as an accident and not in self-punishment -- when I failed to keep my wall.
That means I couldn’t consistently swing the poi in a symmetrical circle along the same flat vertical plane parallel to my body, with one on each side, as if I was standing between two walls that would keep my arms from going out too wide. The motion of swinging them is something like when you’re jumping rope, but you hold the poi near to your body. That is a key to not only technique but safety: You keep the fire in your designated space when you're on stage with others manipulating fire in close proximity.
I have a bit of StairMaster Wrist -- stiffness from holding the rails at the gym -- and it’s made manipulating the poi tougher than expected. I say that aloud and probably sound like I’m making excuses.
Behind me are two 40-something ladies, class regulars who are easy going and welcoming of the visiting reporter. It’s just the three of us on the glowy deck -- plus Samantha and Lester -- each finding an individual rhythm to keep the poi going in perfect circles at consistent speed.
We graduate to the next step, which is swinging the poi faster. You get the razzle-dazzle by doing them double time and out of sync, so that when the right is at the 12:00 of your circle, the left is at 6:00. When lit, it looks like you are standing between two circles of fire. As you progress, you learn to move the poi in all kind of rapidly changing shapes, snapping them up and over, behind and around you, looking like you’re negotiating a shapeshifting cyclone of flames.
I’m not spinning out my own twister just yet. Awkward doesn’t even cover it -- but I am feeling very calmed by the repetitive motion. It turns out that poi can be also be used without fire as one of a few “flow toys” that can be used for rhythmic meditation, or in some cases for physical and mental therapeutic purposes.
The staff looks like a 5ft black pole with a center portion for hand grips and the flammable sections on the ends. Like the poi, and also like yoga, it requires precise contortion without overthinking it. I’m actually getting out of my over-calculating head, starting to let go of my intense workday and my fruitless northeast LA apartment search.
For this class we’re joined by two more, a 20-something couple. They take the classes together.
The basic staff spin starts by holding arms out in front of you at shoulder height, splaying both hands out palms up, with right on top of left and the staff positioned vertically between thumb and forefinger, also known as the basic "Butterfly" position. You then turn the staff counterclockwise and start to prepare to catch with your left hand thumb-side down, then continue in the same direction to return to another Butterfly, and keep rotating. To your audience, from a distance, it looks like you are looking at them while standing in a rotating circle of fire.
I am not great at this but I know I’ll be back. I will at some point light up, and join a diverse group. The clients range from an off-the-wall 7-year-old little boy, whose hyperactivity is quelled by his lessons with Lester, to a 70-year-old woman who's just a badass and can, according to Samantha, really work the staff.
They tell me that I will get to a point where these motions feel natural, and I will flow through them. Again, not unlike yoga. But I'm not a yogi. I'm a runner. I like pounding it out, all alone, on the trail. Preferably some dense section of Griffith Park at dawn. Sometimes I can quiet my mind, and many times I can't.
I’m glad I ventured to the class as a student, and that I discovered the art form. Even if I don’t continue taking classes, I will certainly begin to watch performances. As much as I learned the needed moves on poi and staff, I found this mythical treasure in LA that you’re told exists but occasionally stumble upon: cool people. My classmates were so nice to The New Girl. I left with a lot of gratitude for the easy going patience with my awkward fumbling and random smacks.
Lester assures me that I'm doing better than I believe. I will get there, with practice. And he gives me a nugget to take through my fire training and through my daily life: “You don’t have to think too much about what you’re doing.”
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