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Playing with fire.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

A not-so-new type of performance is catching fire - literally - in local entertainment circles, and Kris Manaois is right in the center of it.

Manaois has the right cultural credentials, although many who don't have Samoan ancestry also have struck a spark for the part-art, part-athletic activity variously called fire dancing, fire twirling, fire spinning, fire hooping, fire eating and fire poi.

"I'm big on fire," Manaois said. "I was born and raised in a family that does Polynesian dance - we moved to California in the early '60s. I was the youngest of four kids - I had no choice but to learn the art and the culture."

Fire wasn't part of the repertoire during his childhood.

"I got my first fire knife - it's called nifo oti - when I was 16," he said. "My family wanted me to do it as an additive (to performances), to bring more awareness of traditional dancing."

He learned the technique and practiced it for a couple of years, but gave up dancing almost completely when he graduated from high school.

"I didn't pick it up again until I moved to Oregon four years ago," 31-year-old Manaois (pronounced ma-NOW-iss) said. "This place was like a mecca for fire performance - it turned me back on. But I decided to take it in a different direction, to a more contemporary style."

Two years ago, he and his wife, Bronwynn, who grew up in a Pennsylvania family with a Celtic background, formed an entertainment group called Earth DescenDance, which she describes as a "contemporary collaboration of people with different talents."

"I was afraid of fire before I met Kris," she said. "But we started meeting some other fire dancers, and he talked me into trying it. I was hooked."

Now, their shows always feature fire performance, and many of their members - from jugglers to the props technician - also have taken up the art.

Tamar Harrison, who creates props and does fire poi for Earth DescenDance, trained as a dancer in her native England. She learned poi spinning - which originated with the Maori in New Zealand and involves twirling arm-length cords with balls fastened on the ends in intricate patterns - during a sojourn in Spain.

"When I first learned poi, I showed it to my mother, and she said she had seen it before - my grandmother had done it in New Zealand," Harrison said.

But not with fire.

Harrison practiced poi spinning for two years before adding the flames.

"You have to be really confident of your skill before you light the fire," she said. "When I first starting spinning with fire, I wore a wool hat and heavy clothes, and I did it on a beach in Hawaii, in case I needed to jump in the ocean and put myself out."

Mike Seager, whose group, The GreyMatter Jugglers, performs with Earth DescenDance as well as on its own, agrees that working with fire adds a different and potentially dangerous element to a performance.

"When you juggle fire, and you're throwing it back and forth, you have to really trust the other person," said Seager, a special education teacher at North Eugene High School by day. "I have been on fire quite a bit."

Just a couple of weeks ago, "I had all the facial hair burned off one side of my face from passing a torch back and forth. You need to respect the fire, but you can't be scared of it. If you see your leg on fire or smell your hair burning, you have to be able to keep calm."

As an art form, fire dancing grew out of the traditional victory dances performed with knives by Samoan warriors after battles. Some accounts hold that the dancers paraded before their chiefs with the heads of their victims impaled on the hooked ends of their nifo oti, long, carved wooden blades with sharp teeth on one edge that ended in the pointed hook.

But fire wasn't added to the dance until Uluao "Freddie" Letuli got the idea while waiting to perform a traditional Samoan knife dance in 1946.

Letuli was at a show for a Shriners convention in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

As recounted in Pacific Magazine a year after Letuli's death in 2003, while waiting to dance, he watched a number of other performers practicing their routines, including a Hindu fire-eater and a young girl twirling a baton with a light bulb attached to each end.

"I stared at the fire eater, then the baton twirler," Letuli said. "The baton twirler, then the fire eater. And just like that, I had an idea that would add `sizzle' to my Samoan knife dance."

He cut into strips the towel he always carried to dry off after his energetic performances, borrowed some kerosene from the fire-eater and tied the soaked strips to his knife.

"The first Samoan fire knife (dance) was born," he said.

Letuli, who got the nickname "Freddie" because of his admiration for the dancing of Fred Astaire, parlayed his fire dance into performances in several movies - "Pagan Love Song," "Salome" and "Sailor Beware" - as well as television shows.

Like Letuli, Manaois feels comfortable stretching traditional dance to accommodate his own creations.

He builds all of the "fire tools" for Earth DescenDance's numbers, including a globe-shaped one that pays homage to his respect for the martial art, tai chi.

"In tai chi, you hold an invisible `energy ball,'" Manaois said. "I wanted to create an appliance to hold fire in my hands without touching fire," he said. The resulting "ener-chi," an external spherical frame with an inner cage for the fire, has become a staple in his performances.

The growing popularity of entertaining with pyrotechnics and knowledge of several tragic disasters that have happened - such as the Rhode Island night club fire that killed 100 people five years ago - have spurred local regulation of performances that involve fire.

The city of Eugene's code issues special no-cost permits for indoor performances in places that meet standards that deal with such things as distance from the flame to the audience; sprinklers for fire suppression; readily available water and wet towels for performer accidents; specifications for fuel, wicks and performer clothing; and inspections by owners or the fire marshal to verify compliance.

Respect for fire is always uppermost in the minds of any highly trained performer, Bronwynn Manaois acknowledged.

"We don't want to take any chances - we have special fire blankets that we take to each performance, and extinguishers and buckets of water in case anything happens," she said.

"There's a real etiquette involved with fire dancing, and everybody really looks out for everybody else," she added.
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Title Annotation:Entertainment; Confidence, practice and trust lie behind spectacular three-alarm performances from a local dance group
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 13, 2008
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