Flame Game

It's every kid's dream to run away with the circus — to slather on white pancake makeup and climb into a crowded toy car or stun an audience speechless by cracking the whip at a roaring beast. Me, I longed to be the graceful fire spinner twirling dual batons of steel, smiling like royalty as the gasoline-fueled flames licked at my sequined blue tutu (thankfully, I thought twice before taking Mommy's lighter to my rubber-capped pageant batons). Turns out Phoenix has an entire subculture of performers who turned their flaming fantasies into reality.

Watching local performer Tricia Moore (a.k.a. Trishnamurti) spin a four-foot-long flaming sword, it's hard to imagine she was ever shy. Even dressed casually in a red spandex camisole and yoga pants, she radiates a vibrant, commanding energy that attracts people like moths to a flame. But when Moore was first exposed to fire spinning a decade ago during First Friday, she wasn't the warrior goddess we see today. "I saw five people all spinning something different: poi, staves, fire fans. A man was even eating fire," she recalls. "I was so mesmerized by it. I just kept thinking, 'I can do that! That's what I was meant to do.'" Too timid to speak, she left the performance. Years later, Moore took a fire-spinning class and then landed a gig twirling flaming poi balls with the same circus troupe she'd seen that First Friday.

By poi, I'm not talking about the mushy Hawaiian food that's served at luaus. This poi is a performance art done with two weighted balls attached by a rope that originated with the Maori tribe of New Zealand (you know, the guys with the black facial tattoos and chest-slapping battle dance famously re-created by the Trinity Trojans high school football team in Dallas). Historians disagree on when fire was introduced to the art, but Moore's research indicates that a Polynesian dancer invented flaming poi after being inspired by a baton twirler and a fire eater. Since then, the art has expanded to include other dance styles and props from flaming nunchaku to Moore's favorite toy, Samoan fire knives.

With a history steeped in tribal traditions, it's easy to see why some local view poi spinning as a spiritual practice. Holistic nurse, yoga instructor, and fire performer Ram Das Kaur, whose name translates as "a princess who is the true servant of God," was attracted to fire spinning after witnessing performances at Burning Man and Bisbee's annual parade. "It was something that was always in the back of my mind, I just needed some initiation." By that, she doesn't mean a little one-on-one time with an expert. Kaur and a friend of hers whom she describes as having "a lot of fire instigation energy" literally held an initiation ceremony upon receiving their first poi balls in the mail. After a mere month of DVD instruction, they were incorporating fire into their practice sessions.

If you're thinking you'll just whip out a couple of tiki torches and get started now, you'd better start hunting for a haircut that looks good with singed eyebrows. Kaur's tri-annual classes feature a fire safety lesson on day one, and Moore was hosed down with water from head to toe before even attempting for the first time to add fire to her poi routine. Of course, even if you're not playing with fire, you can get hurt practicing with any weapon. "I remember hitting myself in the eye with a poi ball the first time. I was so shocked and hurt," Moore recalls. "I got over it, because poi is just so fun. It's just a little bit of pain, right? It happens."

Kaur and Moore agree that the local fire-spinning community is larger than you'd think. There are an estimated 20 or 30 dedicated fire performers in the Phoenix area and hundreds more who've taken Moore's fire spinning classes at Plaza de Anaya Dance Studio in Tempe (formerly Domba and The Mystic Jewel) in the five years she's been teaching. There are currently four spinning "open houses" every week in Phoenix, and Moore has plans to open a Circus Farm, where poi artists, fire breathers, stilt walkers, and other performers can practice. In the meantime, Kaur and Moore are making way for a new generation of fire spinners by teaching workshops and helping locals new to poi. "My inspiration is to touch the hearts of people who have yet to express their dance, so they don't die with it still inside of them," says Kaur. "That's the joy. I'll be spinning poi forever."

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden