Turning Up The Heat

by Pele


In a recent interview Ronald D. Moore, Co-Executive Producer of the HBO series Carnivale said “People aren’t in the Carnival by accident.”  While he was obviously discussing his characters, that statement truly sums up how I feel when I am on the stage. Though each of the arts I know have come to me in a way that seems random, in retrospect they are not. They have a pattern and a purpose and each seems to be the catalyst for some life lesson I truly need. Fire is no exception to this.

Living in a culturally recessed community most of my life meant that creativity had to take a backseat to pragmatic endeavors. Having moved back to this community as a single mom meant that bartending in high profile bars, bellydancing and tarot reading would not pay the bills. I finished degrees in education and literature, augmenting my already existing theater certificate with more classes. I ended up teaching in an Elementary Special Ed. Program and did improvisational theater (mostly in the form of Ren-Faires and Dickens Festivals) on weekends to take the edge off the creative itch. I continued my research into performance arts and histories, my focus always returning to sideshows.

My son was about 3 when we patronized a Ren- Faire we hadn’t visited before. It was there that I saw the worst fire eater I had ever seen. This man (who shall remain nameless) acted as if he was fearful of the fire, and I suppose I would too if I singed myself half as much as he did. Not only was his skill poor but his showmanship was less than riveting, which was easily noted by the crowd that started excited and ended in unenthusiastic dwindling numbers. I walked away from that show fuming, not only at the obvious lack of respect he had for the audience but also for such a distinguished art form. Somewhere in my venting I declared to my companions that I could do better, knowing I probably could but never really intending to. To my great surprise my boyfriend answered, with a casual shrug “Then do it.”  Those three words were enough to shut me up. To this day I think that was actually his goal, not that he ever expected me to follow through with it. Yet, I kept it in the back of my mind and mulled it over for a couple of weeks. Somewhere in that time between the absolute loathing I had of being a public system teacher and the less cerebral job chucking freight at a warehouse store, I decided I needed a challenge for the sake of my sanity.

As a person who enjoys the research aspect of things as much as the physical learning process I set about finding everything I could about what I have come to call “Close Proximity Fire”, referring to any fire effect that comes in contact with my flesh.  For months I compiled information on fuels, fabrics, burn times, temperatures, torch styles, techniques, dangers, histories, effects and stunts, which eventually lead me to other fire arts as well. The one consistent thing I saw in all the books and websites was to learn from a professional. To me it seemed very sage advice, so the next step was to find an instructor. Easier said than done. For three months I approached several eastern based professionals with a very respectful attitude, waiting patiently for answers figuring that they would have more time for response in the “off season”. Having never been the “fan” sort and not someone to go into things lightly I attempted to illustrate these things in my introduction letters and voice messages.  What happened next marred my memories of the sideshow people being warm and welcoming. Those people who bothered to respond (which was less than half of the people I contacted) were so incredibly rude that I began to understand why these arts are not so widely spread. It was suggested that I try sword swallowing because it is easier and safer. There was even one “gentleman” who had the audacity to tell me that fire eating is not for women, nor are any of the sideshow arts for that matter. They are too dangerous and women are better suited to assist the men, and if I was interested in that…! I hung up on him. I contacted 3 “schools”. One school charged a couple thousand dollars to learn the sacred arts and offered no credentials, photos of classes or information from prior students in return. One promised to get back to me with information but never did and the last I never heard back from at all.  I was far more frustrated than discouraged. As I saw it, this displayed a general lack of respect for the continuation of these arts and moreover it made me even more determined than ever to learn.

Armed with a 3 ring binder full of information, I set about teaching myself fire eating. I fashioned a set of beginner torches from bent up coat hangers and cotton wicking. I worked, studied and practiced for many months prior to lighting up. I realize this may seem like overkill, since in all truth, basics can be taught/learned in a few hours but for me this was not good enough. I wanted to know more than the basics before I lit up believing that if I knew more than the essentials, then when it came time for me to attempt the basics I could be assured of my safety. I devised a checklist of safety precautions and reviewed it before each rehearsal. I practiced putting the unlit torch into my mouth at precisely the proper angle by opening the garage door and watching my reflection in the windows above me. I worked with both hands to be sure I was equally adept. I went over the ins, the outs, the flourishes, and the techniques of various stunts until it was committed to body memory and I was dreaming about it at night.  All this with an unlit marshmallow sized wick on a stick.

When the day came of my first “burn” I can remember the “Do I? Don’t I?” internal debate. I had worked long and hard. As nervous as I felt, I was tremendously excited as well. I marched into the garage, a few friends in tow, my coffee can of fuel and my tiny wicked torches in hand. I soaked the wicks, tapped them off appropriately and with great anticipation I lit one and watched it burn. I was mesmerized, as the fire seemed to come alive.  The flames danced and crackled. The heat they put off was intense for such a small flame. I pooled the fire in my hand and marveled at the idea that I was actually holding fire.  I lifted the torch above my face and stared at it. I felt my heartbeat speed up and my mouth go dry as the torch flickered out before I could put it to my lips. I did not wait so long when I lit my second torch. I put it in my mouth as I had practiced. I felt the heat press upon the back of my teeth as I clamped them onto the torch. The flames licked my mouth in an attempt to escape just before they were smothered out. I did this a few more times until it happened with comfort and ease. When all was said and done I celebrated my success, injury free and thrilled, but I also felt strangely guilty for extinguishing something so lovely. I knew I had to do it again, and the more I did it the more it became akin to an addiction, the more I wanted to do it.

It was then that fire became my primary show partner, with a charisma all it’s own that the audience responded to. For years I focused on the many aspects of fire as a performance art, specializing in close proximity fire and eventually having the title “Goddess of Fire” bestowed upon me by the fire arts community. I began to blend fire with bellydance, and eventually with other sideshow arts. It is still a passion of mine and a large part of my repertoire to this day.

If bellydance entered my life to help yank me from my illness and depression, then fire arts entered to help kick my butt in the direction of sideshows, which I had really never honestly considered a viable career choice up to this point in time. In retrospect I have to say that there were 3 major forces that altered my approach to these arts and how I would learn them.

Firstly, I confess, I love a challenge. I am not overly competitive with anyone but myself, and the idea of topping and bettering myself is what has kept me so impassioned about this business. I really thrive in that frustration while trying to figure something out and in the end not only achieving minor successes but knowing that I personally am better for following through and accomplishing what I started.

Next is the lack of available professionals willing to teach. It was such a motivation. If it weren’t for the cold reception I received I would never have experienced the tremendous sense of accomplishment that comes from figuring things out for myself. I still undertake this approach today when I look at new things to add to my repertoire. Of course there are things that I believe a professional really does need to be around for, if for nothing else than safety, though I feel for the most part that research and observation are still better teachers than someone lecturing could ever be. I adopted this theory for when I teach students, in addition to providing safety and how-to-do-basics information and histories, I try to give them the building blocks to continue their education through research on their own in the future (also known as the Socratic Method of Education).

Lastly there have been the many directors who seem to enjoy telling performers “No matter how good you are fire eaters are a dime a dozen.” The ability to prove them wrong is a type of satisfaction I still savor. I have seen great showmen with basic fire eating routines thrill an audience. This all too common attitude especially drives me because in the end, who doesn’t want to be more than just a hope filled dime in the bottom of a wishing well?


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