Spinning, at its core, is a form of exercise and storytelling that originated with the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand.
“The definition, for a Maori, of ‘poi’ is a ball on a string,” says Ataahua Papa, of the Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre of New Zealand and herself a Maori, who is now based in New York. “Originally, it was used by men, developed for warriors in training, to help them develop strength in their upper arms. Over the years, of course, poi has gone through a number of changes. It didn’t initially involve fire, but it’s about innovation — people taking the initiative and creating things that are different, to keep people interested in the art form.”
Poi (and fire spinning in general) still claims fringe status in the Boston area, its practice kept alive by a community of enthusiasts who literally play with fire. Most have experience or interest in circus arts, dance, or burlesque, and all straddle a dichotomous balance of laissez-faire sexuality and safety-obsessed front-of-the-math-class nerdery.
Some people believe they can just douse flammable Home Depot purchases with kerosene, hit them with a Zippo, and morph into an instant red-hot superstar. Those people are assholes. As far as spinning is concerned, “The Northeast is known in the United States as being a very safety-oriented area,” says Chad Bennett, a Salem resident who has been spinning since 2004 as a member of the fire-arts troupe Draconik. “But the Boston area is extremely difficult for these arts, especially since the Rhode Island fire, which was terrible negligence on the part of the people who put that together.”
He means, of course, the 2003 nightclub tragedy at The Station in Providence, where 100 people were killed, thanks to careless and illegal pyrotechnics accompanying a performance by the metal band Great White. This fatal calamity contributed largely to the fire-spinning community’s inability to find a home.
“That incident had nothing to do with our arts, but, since then, trying to get a permit to do performances on public land in the Boston area is next to impossible,” says Bennett. “The whole aspect of anything being on fire really freaks a lot of people out.”
Using specially crafted equipment, responsible spinners practice their moves unlit for months before finally lighting up, usually outdoors, always with a trained safety monitor present, always with a specific type of fuel (usually a clean-burning camping fuel that is low in carcinogens, known to spinners as “white gas”) and an air-tight routine for igniting spinning objects, involving an intricate system of fireproof buckets and barriers. The pre-performance checklist is an obsessive-compulsive’s wet dream — checks and double checks and triple checks. (One would hope airline pilots are this careful.)
Yet, despite these precautions, pyrophobia endures, making it tricky to experience fire spinning in these parts if you’re not a spinner yourself. Public fire performances are nonexistent, and the practice remains secretive and nomadic, like a cool underground party that bounces from club to club, always a few steps ahead of outsiders. There was once even an elusive “secret spot,” nestled somewhere outside of Boston proper, under an overpass. It was here, under the cloak of night and overhead traffic, that spinners could light up and practice, while tolerant (or maybe just weirded out) local law enforcement looked the other way.