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Bewitched by the fire

Special to The Times

STANDING barefoot and nervous on the beach, just minutes after the sun has slipped past the horizon, Iris Perez takes a deep breath and slides her fingers through the loops attached to two 21-inch chains. From each chain dangles a marshmallow-sized ball.

She’s been practicing with the balls -- known as poi -- for weeks, learning to twirl them so fast and so smoothly they look like wings fluttering over her head and around her body. She’s practiced until her arms, legs and abs ached, occasionally sending one of the balls spinning into her head -- or against her body. But gradually, she’s gotten better. She can make the balls spin in the same direction -- or away from each other. She can perform moves with names such as “butterfly,” “angel” and “moth.” And she can transition from one to another on the fly.

But tonight is different. For the first time, she will set her poi on fire.

Once the province of an invitation-only “fire scene,” spinning fire poi has taken its first early steps toward the mainstream. And, like moths, wannabe poi dancers across Southern California are being drawn to the flames.

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The Burning Man counterculture festival alone can be credited for introducing much of today’s audience to fire poi and the related “fire arts,” with dancers wielding the flaming balls while performing underneath the iconic effigy.

Perez entered the fire scene after seeing photos of Burning Man performances. “You see these photographs and they look like fire gods and goddesses playing with these things,” the 24-year-old audio freelancer says.

But in July, dancer Tonya Kay was a contestant on the show “America’s Got Talent,” spinning poi and advancing to the semifinals. Hollywood films such as “Van Helsing,” “Vanity Fair” and “The Reckoning” have also featured fire poi. And a new exercise-focused DVD by Kay, plus organized lessons at schools such as Indra Yoga in Los Angeles are expected to entice even more newbies.

“We get a lot of people who do go to Burning Man. They go there, they see the fire dancing, and they’re like, ‘I’ve got to learn that,’ ” said Hannah Mooney, a poi and yoga instructor at Indra Yoga. “A lot of people also are more, like, the yoga, martial-arts types of people who want to learn to move an object around their body in a moving, meditative way.”

For Perez and others, the appeal is more visceral. “There’s always that slight fear of fire and approaching that fear and controlling that is very appealing,” she said.

But poi and flames are not traditionally linked.

Maori cultural roots

Poi, which translates to “ball” in Maori, has been used for generations by the indigenous people of New Zealand, both for practical and artistic purposes. Historically, women swung these balls as a form of exercise, one that increased flexibility and developed coordination -- keeping their fingers nimble for weaving.

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Men also spun poi -- but in workouts designed to develop the coordination and strength needed for hand-to-hand combat. They often used poi with longer ropes than women would typically use, making the ball more difficult to control and increasing the necessary skill level. Stones were sometimes added for weight and to make the workout more demanding.

Although the Maori did use the poi in dances -- those held before men went off to war -- they didn’t light their poi. Some in the fire community say that the practice began about 50 years ago, stemming from Polynesian performers’ use of flaming staffs. Others attribute it to the ancient Chinese, who tossed bowls filled with flaming tar as weapons.

Regardless, the flaming poi variation is now regarded as a competitive -- and show-worthy -- art form, said Lynne Couillard, a 10-year veteran of the poi and fire scene. Using the name “Pele,” she has performed, choreographed and taught fire poi all over the world.

Both the flaming and nonflaming versions yield the benefits sought by the Maoris and can be done by anyone just seeking a different type of workout for their triceps, biceps, shoulders and wrists.

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If done properly, the core and legs also get an intense workout. Although styles vary, dance is part of the practice. Beginners usually stay in place initially, then they start to shuffle, ultimately finding a rhythm that allows them to move their feet while moving their hands. It takes about six weeks to learn a dozen basic moves.

Fire poi’s appeal, however, goes beyond the physical benefits, with many practitioners finding it to be a form of active meditation.

Describing a fire poi dancer in action may say more about the viewer than the viewed. The fluid, circular movements can evoke rave-goers’ glow sticks or hallucinogen-induced light trails. Sometimes the spinner dominates the poi and is very much the lead; at other times, the poi seems to be in control, with the spinner simply trying to catch up.

Audrey Lowe, another newcomer, was mesmerized when she first saw fire poi about six years ago at a “fire party” featuring performers dancing with, and blowing, flames. Although intrigued, she believed it was a closed subculture not open to outsiders.

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Until recently, she was right.

Los Angeles heat

The greater fire scene, of which fire poi is but a part, includes fire breathers, hoopers with flaming circles of fire, and dancers with flaming swords or staffs.

With the exception of breathing fire, all of these practices can be done without a flame. Fire is usually reserved for celebrations and special occasions, and the vast majority of spinners do not use fire in their daily practice. Many in the general fire community practice multiple disciplines.

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For years, novices to the fire arts had to be invited into the community by someone they knew. Some fire dancers even talk about being “mothered” -- being taken under the wing and tutored by one person.

This practice kept the community small and close-knit, because practitioners rarely took on multiple students. Such incremental growth allowed beginners to meet everyone involved and be assimilated into the scene.

That environment is beginning to change. A few months back, for example, Lowe saw another fire performance, spoke with the performer and found that an Indra Yoga beginners’ class was starting the next day at FocusFish in Hollywood.

She’s been practicing daily ever since.

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Indra Yoga, which teaches both fire poi and staff, offers the only formal classes in the area. But it plans to produce its own fire arts DVDs and is in the process of training teachers. Its expansion plans come amid a growth in the greater Los Angeles community.

That increase began several years ago, fueled not only by Burning Man, but also by an influx of performers.

E.J. LeCouteur, a pillar of the fire scene in Los Angeles who uses the name “Tedward,” estimates that only about 500 people in the Los Angeles area were playing with fire -- in any kind of performance-related way -- when he took up fire performance six years ago. Now, Los Angeles has one of the biggest fire scenes in the country.

Many of the performers moved from the Bay Area, long a hotbed for the fire scene, when that market became too saturated. The sheer number of fire performers began to dampen what they could charge for their services. Los Angeles, on the other hand, had few performers -- but plenty of TV and film work, events (such as E3) and well-paying parties.

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The greater L.A. area now has about 10,000 active or recently active members, says LeCouteur -- now the owner of Bearclaw Manufacturing, a company that makes fire-performance equipment. Of those, many have formed subcultures within the subculture. The Hawaiian Knife Spinners, for example, number about 1,000. And Orange County is home to a group of gothic/industrial-scene fire performers, while San Bernardino has fire performers who spin to country music, LeCouteur said.

With the growing numbers has come the need to improve safety, says LeCouteur, who prefers a fire staff to poi. He helped found the North American Fire Arts Assn. to give performers more information about fire safety and eliminate dangerous misconceptions within the community. For instance, the person who got LeCouteur involved in the fire scene was fond of extinguishing his wicks in kerosene.

“His rationale behind it was, ‘It’s never been a problem before.’ And yeah, it’s not a problem [most of the time]. But, one out of 50 times, it blows up. And it blew up. And that’s why he stopped fire performing -- because the hair’s grown back but he still doesn’t quite have feeling in his hands.”

LeCouteur now gives fire safety information to all of his customers. And the organization, at www.nafaa.org, is working to create a set of nationally recognized and self-governed safety rules.

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Such efforts might pick up steam as the fire arts make more appearances in mainstream entertainment; even retail establishments sell poi (Wal-Mart and even some grocery stores have sold toy versions for children in recent years).

A mainstream spin

Not everyone in the community is pleased with fire poi’s rising popularity. Some members say that appearances on network TV cheapen the art form, and they’ve been critical of performers they see as too quick to pursue publicity or students. Because they dislike mainstream attention, they were not interested in speaking with The Times.

Performer Kay, who probably put spinning poi in front of more mainstream eyes than anyone else, empathizes with those who would like to keep the community “invite-only.” “There’s a part of me that thinks that I’m special because I” spin poi, she says. “And I want to remain special, so I want to protect who knows about it.”

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But that’s outweighed by a desire to introduce poi to whoever needs it -- whether it’s someone who wants an exercise that’s artistic or someone who is coming off an injury and needs a gentle method to build strength in the arms or wrists.

Newcomer Lowe, for instance, began practicing poi with a brace on her wrist from stress injuries she says were caused by three years of uncorking bottles at a wine bar. After a few weeks, however, she was no longer wearing the brace during class and now rarely needs it.

To that more athletic end, Kay recently released a how-to DVD. “It’s so natural for women to want to do a beautiful form of exercise -- not to just go and lift heavy weights, but to do something that feels good and looks beautiful while you’re doing it,” Kaye said.

For men, the attraction is different, she says. “You have the lure of eventually lighting them on fire, and it’s dangerous and cool and sexy,” she said.

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Although she spins every day, usually at sunrise or sunset, she only uses fire poi on special occasions. A raw food vegan who drives a biodiesel car, she doesn’t want to contribute to unnecessary consumption of fuels.

Lighting up

Now standing on the sand at Dockweiler State Beach, one of the few fire-friendly public batches of sand in L.A., Perez is understandably nervous.

She and her fellow Indra Yoga students -- along with teachers and mainstays of the local poi community, sisters Kamala Mathis and Mooney -- have been working toward this 14th and final lesson for seven weeks.

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The poi in the students’ hands tonight are heavier than the ones they’ve been using. Even the weight is distributed differently.

But more important, with regular poi, a mistake simply means that a beanbag will bounce against the head or body, causing at most a bruise. With fire poi, they could burn eyebrows, hair, clothes or skin.

At last, Perez douses her fire poi in light gasoline, which burns longer and at a cooler temperature than kerosene, and lights up. Surrounded by the smell of the fuel, she holds her hands in front of her, spinning her Kevlar poi in opposite directions so that the balls cross at the top and bottom of the circles. From butterfly, she transitions into moves such as shadow dancer and chasing the sun.

As she’s spinning, she can smell the gasoline, a new poi sensation. But she’s most surprised by the sound -- the flames give off a roar that overwhelms her other senses. Those orbs obscure the rest of the beach, the Pacific in the background and the fire pits in the distance.

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The routine is going better than Perez planned, so she goes for a leg transition, in which the chain of her poi will wrap around her calf like a snake until it comes to stop and she unwinds it to start spinning in the other direction. It’s a potentially dangerous move but one that she pulls off smoothly.

Soon, her three-minute jam is over. Not only does she feel incredible, Perez says, she feels even closer to her fellow students.

“One of the best things I’ve gotten out of this is the community of it,” Perez said. “L.A. can be so huge and this is the first time where it made it a little bit smaller.”

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Fire starters

Finding a poi class or instructor may take some legwork. But books, DVDs and online lessons can explain the basics:

DVDs

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* “How To Spin Poi” with Tonya Kay, $30.95 (including shipping), at www.kayosmarket.com.

* “Poi Spinning Basics with Pele’s Element,” $19.99, at www.amazon.com.

Books

* “Poi Spinning,” by Michal Kahn, $24.69, at www.amazon.com.

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Classes

* Indra Yoga, 14 classes over seven weeks, $280. The studio also hosts a fire jam once every two months at Dockweiler State Beach. www.indrayoga.com.

For other information:

* North American Fire Arts Assn., an organization with resources and safety information for performers. www.nafaa.org.

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* Inferno Inc., a Los Angeles-based fire performance troupe. www.inferno-inc.us.

* L.A. Fire Conclave, a space for fire jammers. www.lafc.org.

* Do More Poi, a site with instructions on various moves as well as how to make your own poi. www.domorepoi.com.

* Bearclaw Manufacturing, a local maker of poi torches, with links to other information. www.bearclawmfg.com.

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