The keeper of the flame in Maui

I would rather eat paste than poi, and I hate buffet lines, so I thought I wasn’t the luau type. Family-style service, upscale Hawaiian fare and five bare-chested male dancers twirling and throwing flaming knives changed my mind and kindled my curiosity about Samoan fire knife dancing.

The Samoan warrior dance, or ailao, didn’t include fire until 1946 when, rehearsing their acts in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a Hindu fire-eater and a baton twirler inspired Uluao “Freddie” Letuli to embellish his Samoan warrior dance. Letuli borrowed fuel from the fire-eater, wrapped a towel around his knife, or nifo oti, and ignited it, giving rise to fire knife dancing.

The nifo oti, Samoan for “tooth of death,” resembles a machete with a hook at the end of its blade. The hook’s sharpness and weight increase the difficulty and risk for the fire dancer catching the blazing blade.

At the Westin Maui Resort & Spa, Tavita Taue’etia is a third-generation fire knife dancer who created and performs in its Wailele Polynesian Luau. Taue’etia was trained by his mother’s cousin, “Uncle” Falaniko Vitale, a pupil of “Freddie” Letuli (nicknamed “Freddie” for dancing like Fred Astaire). Vitale gained fame as a fire knife dancer in Waikiki, performing with Don Ho and others. At age 10, Taue’etia began learning the dance, and at 14, he started performing professionally with Vitale.

“Fire knife dancing requires great coordination, athleticism and masterful timing,” Taue’etia says. Twirling a nifo oti involves greater skill than twirling a fire baton because of the weight and sharpness of the blade. Besides twirling, throwing and catching the flaming knife, classic moves include rolling it around the neck and passing it between the legs, around the ankles and across the back. In decades of performing, Taue’etia claims he has had only two serious injuries — “30 stitches and 18 stitches, when the hook got caught on my leg.”

Though Vitale performed into his 50s, most fire knife dancers retire before 40. At 52 Taue’etia enjoys being the principal fire knife dancer in the Westin’s luau, which has two weekly shows. Taue’etia says: “It’s only an authentic Samoan fire knife dance if the dancer uses a nifo oti.”