Dancing with Fire in Kakaako
Each month Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vibrant and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: Fire jam at Kakaako Waterfront Park.
Photo: Kyle nishioka
WHAT IT IS
Fire Jam is a weekly gathering of fire dancers and their admirers, Thursdays from 7:30 to 10 p.m., at Kakaako Waterfront Park. The fire dancers practice and perform at the concrete amphitheater in a remote part of the park, where there’s not much—apart from the participants themselves—that can accidentally catch fire.
The fire dancers range in age from teenagers to senior citizens. Their skills are drawn from various disciplines, including juggling, baton twirling, rhythmic gymnastics, martial arts, parkour and acroyoga. Novices, sometime called “new puppies,” might get started by holding a simple palm torch or by twirling a staff set ablaze at both ends. Spectators lounging on the grass of the amphitheater often outnumber the fire dancers.
Fire dancers have a wide variety of tools, including flaming hula hoops, flaming poi balls, flaming fans, flaming jump ropes and flaming bullwhips. (The bullwhips send up plumes of fire when cracked.) The dancers buy their fire tools online or make their own. Anything a dancer can wrap a wick around, set on fire and dance with can be turned into a fire tool. “I might go looking for a pogo stick,” says one Fire Jam regular, Calvin Chang. “That would be interesting.”
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon
Some fire tools are fashioned into things the dancers can wear, such as fire tiaras, fire skirts and individual finger torches. At one recent Fire Jam, a woman dressed as a mermaid lay on the stage waving a single flaming fin with her feet. Behind her danced a man wearing a pair of flaming wings. After coming off stage and extinguishing the wings, the man, Jeremiah Simpson, who looked exhilarated, said: “You can feel the heat. It gets pretty hot back there.”
DJs set up turntables, speakers, an amplifier and a portable generator. Techno, tech-house, minimal house, psychedelic and related genres dominate.
After operating as an underground event for several years, Fire Jam now has a permit from the city, good through the end of the year.
Volunteer safety monitors, equipped with flame-retardant blankets, fire extinguishers and a solid grounding in the safety rules, are always on hand. The rules include 1) maintaining 20 feet between fire dancers and spectators, and 2) fire dancers with long hair must keep their hair close to their heads. Accidents, however, do happen. “One of the new puppies, she caught her hair on fire because she didn’t follow the rules,” recalls a Fire Jam regular, Gardel Leal. “She didn’t get burned, but the next day she had to get a haircut.”
Photo: Kyle nishioka
FUEL FOR THE FIRE
Coleman lantern fuel is the general-purpose fuel, good for most fire tools.
Fire breathers prefer the cleaner-tasting paraffin lamp oil, which they spew from their mouths in great bursts of flame.
Isopropyl alcohol, which can burn briefly on human skin without causing harm, is used for a trick called “fleshing,” in which fire dancers set their flesh—briefly—on fire.