‘Ignite your passion’, ‘fire up your audience’, ‘light up the night’… but leave the ‘pants on fire’ bit for the nursery rhyme.
Fire performance has taken on a grand array of creative expressions over the past couple of decades. From the old schoolers breaking out with kerosene soaked rags on broom handles (don’t laugh I’ve seen it!!), it has been refined and redefined as an incredibly versatile and visually stunning piece of performance art. Visionaries have infused it with incredible costuming, choreography, dance, circus skills, multimedia and theatre.
And with the constant upskilling and raising the barre of its cred as highly polished performance art, somewhere along the way it kind of got forgotten that it is actually quite dangerous. Recent tragic incidents have led me to write this article to alert people to the risks involved in fire and costuming, not to put people off, but to alert them so we can continue to move forward and share fire spinning’s bounty of aesthetic beauty and fine-tuned skill, in safety… safety… safety.
There is some excellent information on Home Of Poi about fire safety here, that I thoroughly recommend you read, especially if you are new to fire, and below is my experience as a fellow fiery.
Regarding costuming, I’ve seen a lot of what works, and unfortunately some of what really, really, doesn’t.
Choice of materials is super important. Ideally nothing is going to be alight other than your fire gear, but IF it is going to spark, you definitely DON’T want nylon fibres melting into your skin. The ideal is natural fibres such as cotton, hemp, wool which will burn to cinders, not melt, if it does ignite. If you are unsure of a fabrics’ constituents, take a small piece, place it somewhere safe like a sink, and light it; if it crumbles it’s natural, if it melts it’s synthetic, a bit of each it’s probably a mix. Here is a great chart I just found from ditzyprints
Another thing to consider is its density. Cheesecloth or other light floaty fabric has a lot of air through it, which means plenty of oxygen to burn!! You want solid fabric, a tight weave you can’t see through it. If you REALLY love a fabric that is a bit thinner then at least back it with a solid natural fiber to reduce the air flow.
Please stay away from synthetics – if they melt when you burn them, then they are going to melt onto your skin which = bad burns… As in, potentially fatal burns… so please be safe with your fabric.
I strongly recommend against velvet, fleece or similar fabrics as they are very flammable due to the pile. And please test your fabric or fabrics even if you are lining them! If I am to layer a lace over cotton for example I will pin them together and hold the flame from a lit fire wand to the fabric for 3 seconds. (In a safe space of course!) If by that time it hasn’t ignited I consider it safe enough to use, as my fire is rarely stationary for very long. If you do lots of wraps and other tricks where fire is in close proximity to the clothing for a period of time, lengthen the timing of the test to ensure it won’t catch alight during a show.
Close fitting designs are ideal, as there is less chance of air flow through the fabric leading to less oxygen and flammability.
Ensuring fabric edges are all hemmed (left image) also makes it more difficult for fire to take hold. Torn fabric or unfinished edges (right image)ignite more easily.
Long flowing skirts have been responsible for some serious accidents, so it is highly recommended these not be used for anything requiring object manipulation. Fringing, long trails of beads, long pony tails, long slit skirts, are all things that can get caught up in sticks and poi, so keep them short and tucked away.
I don’t have to tell you to make sure your equipment is structurally sound!! Having a flaming wick come off the end of a staff or poi can be tragic! No not just for the interruption to the show…. You wouldn’t deliberately throw a ball of fire at someone would you? You know the deal.
Buy your fire toys from a professional who knows what they are doing! A backyard job might seem like a cheaper option but please make sure you have appropriate materials and directions first. Home Of Poi is a great resource of how-to’s and they have an excellent shop of pre-made made equipment as well as bits to make your own. See below some images from their shop.
Check all screws and other elements that are keeping the wicking in place. Also check for fraying edges of the Kevlar wicking and trim if necessary to make sure no flaming threads go flying.
ALWAYS have a safety kit on board. My standard kit contains
- Some damp towels (not soaking wet as it will soak into wicks) for putting out equipment. You need enough to cover the ground which you will put the equipment onto, plus enough to cover the equipment once it’s down. For a standard solo show I use 4 full size towels. For larger shows heavy woolen blankets are great to use on the ground – make sure they are sprayed with sufficient water than they won’t light up themselves!
- An extra towel which is wet to put out performers though never had to use them as such! Some people use fire blankets which are effective also, but I prefer the weight of towels.
- Dry Chemical extinguishers, and appropriate knowledge of how and when to use them – here is a great article on fire safety from Home Of Poi . For indoor shows such as ballrooms etc where you are in a venue with many flammable things AND people, ensure the venue manager knows where the venue extinguishers are and their staff member is present during the show who knows how to use it.
- Witches hats – I found some little orange sports cones (20cm high) that are super handy for marking out safety areas, shaking off areas, all spaces that are out of bounds to human traffic. Barrier tape is good for this also.
- Water spray bottle – to spray down your hair and costumes before a show. I usually spray down no more than 5 minutes before Show time or it can dry out.
“I spray… a small amount of dew on my hair and costume… Since it evaporates quickly, if show times are push back later I make sure that the misting gets topped up. I do a lot of between the legs stuff with fire props with heavy wicking so it’s been a big deal for me.” – Bill La
A fire sister recently sustained terrible burns on her leg and back, which was worsened by the fact that due to various factors her fire safety kit wasn’t on hand during a safety assessment for busking;
“… Contributing to my accident was a newly purchased, leaking dipping tin from a well-known juggle/fire supplier in Melbourne.
As I walked from my car to Southbank, unknowingly, firewater was leaking through the seams of the container through my bag and down the right hand side of my body…when I arrived for my safety assessment I noticed this and mentioned in to the safety officers. They still wanted to see me light up and because I’ve never had any issues in all these years of performing, I went ahead and began my act. First dance/song with palms went fine then second act with my poi was when they just brushed my skirt (the side which had absorbed the firewater) and it traced the fuel line up the right hand side of my body.
There was more firewater leakage down my side than I initially thought and I know I shouldn’t have gone ahead and lit up (in hindsight) but it was a case of being desperate to get the buskers permit and after putting the assessment off twice (external factors)…They just wanted to get it over and done with and I just wanted to get it over and done with. Please refrain from any negative comments towards my judgement on that day…This was my story and I hope it helps :)” – Eryn Wright
For choreographed gigs, especially inside, or where there will be children, it’s super important to have a fire marshal or fire safety technician with you, who is experienced with fire and knows your show and your fuel before the gig! They need to be watching you and the audience at all times during the show. Have them call out ‘safety’ if they need to come and help you out onstage, so you don’t collide or hit them with a fire prop!
‘I teched once for a show many years ago with performers I had not typically worked with and on one occasion had a pair of lit snakes/blades thrown at me instead of given. I suffered hand burns whilst frantically trying to get the props to the towels behind me (and a floating performer and photographer had decided to position themselves behind me and between said towels)’. – Brendan Angelo
Timing – Don’t rush. Ensure you have plenty of time to prepare, and make sure the client knows how long it will take. I allow at least an hour for prep, and in big venues allow more time. Some people think you can just rock up and start spinning! If they pressure you to rush to start earlier than agreed politely (or less so if need be) tell them you are not prepared to put you, their guests or the venue in danger, and they need to wait.
‘I have done a lot of hectic shows and understand how (an) unfortunate situation should escalate. I had an forceful client last week tell me I needed to be on stage in 2 minutes, but I took a breath and took my time to make sure safety came first. (Consider) time management, external pressures, and prioritising safety in all situations.’– Michael Scarlett
‘Clients rushing you is a big one… I’ve had to tell a client off before for rushing me when I’m trying to dip and safety check equipment in the dark space provided, holding a phone up for light! In retrospect that easily could have gone so wrong’ …- Josie Jupiter
Rehearsal – Make sure you have done a full run through of the show on fire, with all the props you intend to use and IN COSTUME so you know if there are any technical hitches that need to be amended. Different costumes will work with different props. Long skirts are NOT ok with poi for example (they really shouldn’t be used at all for any object manipulation, except for highly experienced professionals). Make sure nothing will get tangled. If you have static equipment for any period of time you don’t want it near highly flammable costuming. Not something you want to find out on stage in front of hundreds or thousands of people.
Fuel- Also make sure you have used the fuel previously, as different fuels behave in different ways, and you don’t want to be surprised by a hotter flame or a more volatile, easily transferable one!
Atmosphere – Additionally please note that an indoor gig is much different from outdoors. You may have less wind and therefore less flamage lapping at your arms. On the other hand the stillness and lack of fresh air can make it much hotter to work in. Try to practice in similar environments if possible, etc in an empty factory if accessible.
‘(I’ve had problems with) Performers convincing you to wear costumes or use props you haven’t checked or made yourself. I’ve had performers stick a massive prop in my hand at festivals and literally push me onto stage where the wind has blown the fire up my arm and I’ve had to drop the prop. Rehearsing with the things like fans On Fire is really important as you all know because you can make choreography that feels fine without fire then realise your fans are too hot for certain moves at the start of the burn and need to drop them which is dangerous.’ – Josie Jupiter
‘For huge long wicks like fire swords (especially them monster claymores) or heavily wicked fire fans, try to minimise pointing them downwards even if you have fire resistant gloves.’ – Bill La
‘My worst burns are from flash paper. I used to keep it underneath my leather cuffs for a fire eating routine. How the flame got under there still surprises me, I had to lean my lesson twice, that shit’s volatile. (It caused) nasty burns to my wrist and palm.’ – Jessie Rootbeer
Performance area – Ensure there is sufficient space for your performance area, safety equipment, fire equipment, and that there is easy access between them. Check for flammables in the performance area. Curtains, people, carpets, overhead obstacles, all need to be familiarised with. At least 2 metres clearance of flammables on all sides of the performance space is ideal. If need be I will spray any flammables close by with water pre show.
Put out area – Make sure that it is free of clutter, this includes people!! Ensure your towels are damp enough, and if the show has been pushed back and things are starting to dry out, douse them with more water!
…’My moment was performing during a crazy heat wave and my we fire safety towel actually dried during a show. When I went to put out a prop the towel caught fire and I had to use the extinguisher. It was both terrifying and embarrassing.’ – Malia Walsh
‘Something I had to learn … is not leaving dipped props/extinguished props on or near the wet towels. This can leave fuel on the towels and clutters them up when you need speed access’… -Jessie Rootbeer
Preparation area – Make sure you have enough space to safely dip and shake out fire gear. This really needs to be outside, and secure from human traffic with easy access to your performance space. If need be get a staff member to assist clear guests as you move through to the performance area so you are not brushing past guests in chiffon blouses and hair sprayed hairdos with fuel drenched toys!!
Communication – Ensure audience is aware of what is about to happen. Have the MC (or yourself) instruct the crowd to restrain children and not allow them to near the stage. This goes for some adult patrons and photographers too they love getting amongst it which can be really dangerous.
‘A huge contributing factor seems to be an accumulation of events… I feel learning to say no is an import one, no to dangerous stage decorations, no to time changes/pressure, no to difficult situations, no to close proximity to drunk audience without security and no to untested/unsafe costumes… it’s actual fire and it’s actually really fucking dangerous. Saying no is not being difficult, you’re being professional.’ – Malia Walsh
Air conditioning – Check the air conditioning is in reverse to draw the fumes out of the venue, and to prevent strong air flow messing with your fire flow. (nothing like a sudden gust of wind from a fan to mess up a perfect fire eat)
Lighting – Know what the lighting will be like before the show. If it will be dimmed, make sure the preparation area will have sufficient lighting that you can find your equipment! If people are taking photos instruct them to turn the flash off if you feel it will distract you onstage. If you have throws in your show, make sure there will be no spotlights blinding you!
Shaking off equipment – One of my first gigs was on a metal (!?!?) floor. I thought great at least I can’t set fire to it! But within 2 minutes it was like ice-skating, the floor was sooooo slippery! Make sure you shake out your equipment really well, especially for polished floors, so you stay on your feet!… and also so you don’t spray your audience or venue with little fireballs.
Aside from reducing the excess fuel on the wicks, it is also important to ensure sticks and handles are wiped down if they get fuel on them.
My worst incident was with a tech I don’t usually work with who didn’t shake off my eating wands properly, and the fuel ran down the handles and saturated my glove in fuel. During a fire eating ‘battle’, I had to ‘feed’ my partner an eating wand, and the fire shot straight up and set my glove on fire.
I was trying to pull back but he thought my frown was due to me acting really well and bit onto the wand so I couldn’t move. I had about 15 seconds of my hand engulfed in fire, which even with the glove on was enough to cook my pointer finger and thumb. And then I had the rest of the show to go, not so fun. – Tjoni Johansen
NB – Another important note about shaking off – if you do it while in full costume, you are essentially turning yourself into a human sized wick!! Wear a jacket or coat, with a hood if possible, to cover your threads while spinning off excess fuel, or have your safety tech shake out your gear.
“When you are spinning off excess fuel, make sure that other performers are not spinning their excess onto your costume. It’s happened more times than it should.” – Bill La
ACAPTA in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia have an ACAPTA PASS for people wanting to busk, which is a safety check run by peers to ensure a performers safety protocols are up to scratch. Highly recommended to get in touch with them before you start performing.
The idea is you never need to use it, but you MUST have insurance in order to perform professionally. In Australia there is an organisation called Duck For Cover that organises insurance at a very reasonable rate for performers and workshop facilitators. Their year of cover goes from Mid-August each year.
SO now you know what NOT to do, I hope you feel better able to prepare yourself to safely enjoy the pleasures of performing with fire. But please remember to ALWAYS be mindful that it IS a dangerous element to be playing with, and to have respect for it as such.
If there is anything you would like to know that hasn’t been included here please get in touch!
Written by Tjoni Johansen
‘I have been costuming for 20 years, the past 10 of which have mainly been for myself as a fire performer, and for my co-performers. My knowledge is limited to my personal experience and I’m sure there is plenty more information out there so if anyone has anything to add I would love to hear from you.
Huge thanks to the Melbourne fire community for their contributions!’
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