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Opinion

Fire-spinning brings new tradition in Portland

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April 21, 2011

Courtney, a friend I met in the foothills of New Hampshire, invited me to her home in Portland, Maine if I should pass through, and so I did. On the second night in Portland as I waited for my Amtrak train home, Courtney invited me to a fire-spinning farewell for Harrison, a fellow fire spinner friend. We met the other fire spinners in the attic-style-apartment in South Portland. Three couches bordered three walls in what resembled a carnivalesque antique store that held the farewell fire spinner party. These were one of many groups that inhabit public parks and street corners showcasing their art. We took a smoke break and met Harrison outside the house. He was riding his retro bicycle that was outfitted with a ‘90s boom-box strapped to the rack belting out electronica, an appropriate choice of accompaniment as we walked to an Atlantic Ocean beach.

Fire-spinning, aka fire dancing, is a mastery of manipulating fire with any apparatus that can hold a flame. The tools we had for fire-spinning that night were staffs, poi, which is a pouch that is attached to a chain with a handle, a sword,and a fire hoop. For example, if one were to fire spin with a staff they would dip the ends of the staff with kerosene or some sort of flammable liquid, light it on fire, and swirl it around like a marching band’s leader does with a baton.

With the mask of darkness and the loud sloshing of the tide we snuck onto the beach that closes at dusk. The first act in the ceremony was Claudia, who used poi. Dripping with kerosene, the poi held at her side, the orbs of fire lit twin holes of light into the darkness. She threw the poi around her body, above her head, and around her knees, undulating her body like a double helix. In the utter silent darkness, the tribe of fire spinners watched in awe, me included.

The halo of light that bathed her, fizzled out as the kerosene came to its end, but it transferred to the other fire-spinners that began their dance with fire. Courtney moved with the rhythm of a gymnast, always a look of contentment on her face as if this place of time was meant for her.

Algernon, a barrel-chested fellow with a chestnut goatee and moustache combo, waded into the chilly Atlantic Ocean. With the waves slamming into his hulking figure like a sea stack, his poi fire spinning glimmered off the ocean spray. He looked like a submarine making a beachhead. After watching the fun I emboldened myself to give this a go. After I learned some basics from Algernon, I began swinging some poi at my side. Like dual fans that were rotating from my arms, I started criss-crossing across my body faster and faster until they began to regularly slap against my knees. It felt like I was leaning against the inside wall of a subway tunnel while the subway is continually passing within inches of tearing me apart. As a token of friendship they gave me a pair of training poi to use for practice.

Now that I had become part of this fire spinning cult I didn’t feel like an observer anymore. The energy was building as the moon was sinking into the west. Multiple fire spinners were wielding fire so that it seemed as if we had enough energy to supplant the sun for a bit. This all led up to Harrison’s finale. He traded the cloth sheath of his sword for a kerosene dipped bath. He parried the shadows with indefensible stabs and strikes of fire. As I tried to capture his broad sword of fire with my point-and-shoot camera, the fire would swallow up his body in each snapshot. It was a poetic end to Harrison’s summer.

As to bid Harrison a final farewell away from Portland, the police waved their manufactured flashlights at the beach’s entrance to wish him good-bye in a different fashion. Courtney and I bid the others a hasty good night and walked calmly but speedily away from the scene. The darkness and roar of the surf swallowed us in our escape into the night.

Christopher Pagels is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.