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Keeping the flame alive

[img1]Geoffrey Grimes always liked to play with fire.

"A little homemade napalm, a little homemade C4," said Grimes, a junior majoring in physics. "My dad's from Eastern Washington. You know how it is."

Blowing things up was good fun, but three years ago Grimes discovered the ultimate pyrotechnic thrill.

"I was down in Golden Gardens and I saw people spinning these flaming wicks around," he said. "I'd been going to raves and playing with glow sticks, and their group was doing the same thing I did, only a lot better. And they were doing it with fire."

Fire dancing is the art of moving burning objects around one's body, and it's not hard to see why this kind of activity draws the interest of college students. Most fire dancers get their start the way Grimes did: they see someone doing it and ask if they can give it a try.

There isn't much fire dancing activity on campus anymore, but a few years ago was something of a golden age for the art at the UW.

A sizable fire arts club was present on campus from 2001 to 2005, and its members often performed openly in Red Square. Pressure from police forced them to move to more distant and secret venues. When the club's core members graduated, the organization spun apart.

Today Grimes and his roommate, sophomore Tyson Cecka, are the only ones carrying the torch at the UW. A few others spin with them from time to time, but Grimes and Cecka are the most consistent performers. They can be seen practicing their fire dance moves in the quad about once a week.

"There really isn't any club at the moment," Grimes said. "Right now it's just me and Tyson. There are other people learning to spin right now, but so far we're the only ones who use fire."

Like graffiti and drag racing, amateur fire artists must often perform with one eye watching the horizon for law enforcement. Only those who make it big enough to join professional groups with the money to pay for fire permits can ply their trade openly.

Poi are the most common fire dancing implements, consisting of a burnable wick on the end of a chain or cord. Loops are often attached to the end of the chain opposite the wick to accommodate the dancer's fingers.

Fire dancers usually start by learning to spin two poi at the sides of their bodies. Next they learn to intersect the orbits of their poi, make one poi follow another, and bring the burning wicks into increasingly complex patterns of movement.

"It's really fun when you're learning," said Cecka, who intends to major in computer science. "There's the basic patterns that you learn, then you combine those into more patterns and then it opens up and it's just pattern after pattern after pattern."

It's not hard to invent new poi techniques. During a brief practice session on Monday, Grimes and Cecka discovered two new moves to try during their next burn.

"Even when you're doing the most basic stuff people will be like, 'Whoa! That's the most awesome thing in the world,'" Grimes said. "Because it's such an unusual hobby and you're playing with fire, it fascinates them. It's also the best chick magnet I've ever found."

The sight of flaming poi swirling around a dancer's body is awesome to behold, but its sound has also been known to turn heads.

"The noise it makes when it whooshes around you is the sexiest sound ever," Cecka said. "When you hear that for the first time, it's one of those life-defining experiences."

HomeOfPoi.com is the online hub of the fire-spinning community, offering equipment for sale, lessons and a discussion board for performers. Apart from what his fire dancing friends taught him, Grimes acquired most of his knowledge and equipment from that Web site.

[img2]Poi originated among the Maori people of New Zealand, who used them to to exercise muscles and build coordination. Traditional Maori poi techniques do not include the use of fire, but when poi performers were exposed to the Western circus arts of fire eating and fire breathing, the connection was easy to make.

Dancers often experiment with other fire dancing instruments. Staffs tipped with wicks allow for fast twirling techniques, while long chains with wicks on both ends are a difficult but exciting alternative to poi.

It's customary for experienced fire performers to help newcomers to the hobby create their first set of poi. Chains attached to tennis balls are suitable, and in a pinch a pair of stockings with balled-up socks in the ends will make serviceable practice poi.

Before last winter, Cecka had never heard of fire dancing, but ending up as Grimes's roommate in Haggett Hall quickly changed that.

"He moved into the room and I said, 'What are those cool chain-looking things?'" Cecka said.

Grimes said his roommate got into the craft quickly.

"That first night he spent about five hours outside spinning them," Grimes said. "It was the 5th of January and his fingers were blue when he got back in."

Within a week, Cecka "burned" for the first time. He and Grimes have since spun fire at Golden Gardens Park in Ballard, beaches in Issaquah, friends' parties and many other locations around Renton and Seattle they didn't want to disclose.

Police and firefighters tend to get just as startled as members of the general public when people start swinging lit objects around, and their response is often far from "Cool!"

The regulations governing fire performance don't cater to low-budget hobbyists -- a permit for a single burn costs $126. Firefighters must be present to witness the performance, and if it occurs after hours, the artists will be charged for firefighters' time.

After performing three authorized events with no incidents, a fire troupe will be eligible to apply for a $333 permit that lasts for a year and covers all performances -- but after each year performers must pay for a new one.

"They have to let us know 48 hours in advance whenever they're having an event," said Seattle Fire Department lieutenant Tom Heun. "If it's in a new location we haven't looked at, or they add a new routine or they add a new member to their troupe, they have to give us notice so we can go out and witness it."

Grimes said he isn't interested in performing professionally -- he's been offered venues twice and said no both times. As long as he can spread knowledge in fire dancing, he'll be happy.

"I think it's a really cool art form and I'd like more people to be aware of it," Grimes said.

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