The control and manipulation of fire is at the basis of Fireknife Dancing, a modern form of dance that is based on the ancient victory gestures made by Samoan warriors. Once upon a time, these gestures would have been performed with wooden swords lined with carved teeth, but in the Fireknife Dancing of today, a performer has many different tools at his or her disposal.
Taking inspiration from all walks of martial arts and fire play, some of the common instruments utilized by Fireknife dancers include swords, poi, staffs, batons, torches, fans, finger wands, rope darts, or Fireknives. As Fireknife dancing has grown in popularity, performers and craftsman have crafted new tools unique to the art of Fire Dancing as well.
Paramount Chief Letuli Olo Misilagi is credited with the creation of what is today known as Fireknife Dancing. Using the tribal dancing of the ancient Samoans known as the Samoan Knife Dance as a basis, Chief Letuli Olo Misilagi was inspired to add fire to his “weapons” by witnessing a Hindu fire eater and a baton twirler working with fire. He performed the dance for the first time, with flaming pads on his swords, in San Francisco in 1946.
The addition of fire to the already dangerous and difficult Samoan Knife Dance was an immediate hit with other Fire Knife dancers, leading to the beginning of a new dance medium. Chief Letuli Olo Misilagi continued performing the Fireknife Dance for the rest of his life, and even became a teacher to the early Fireknife Dancers.
Today’s Fireknife Dancing uses the same techniques as that first dance. Running movements, or mo’emo’e, are traditional signals of battle victory. The stamping of feet served as a way of trying to intimidate an opponent, while head movements, or gego, were used by warriors to trick or confuse their rivals. Olioli, movements which include passing the knife through the legs, around the ankles, or the back, or around the neck, were all used to distract, and folifoli movements indicated a coming strike. To these ancient combat techniques, twirling and tumbling, plus fire were added to get the end result of the Fireknife Dance. Quite obviously, the dance is dangerous to a performer, and cuts and burns are regular occurrences.
Until the mid-90s, Fireknife Dancing was relegated to circus shows and native customs, but during the late 90s and the first half of the 2000s, Fireknife Dancing has exploded in popularity. Exposure at such events as concerts, cabaret shows, and popular outdoor festivals, such as the Burning Man Festival, has spread the art of Fireknife Dancing all over the world. FireKnife Dancing has combined with other popular art forms, such as theater and belly dancing, in mixed stage shows. As it gains recognition, the medium will continue to be combined and integrated with other forms of dancing and fire art. It is only at the beginning of its popularity.