BY REBECCA GALLERY, PHOTOS BY JAMES ATKINSON
The air was filled with smoke and fire last week at The Old Takoma Park gazebo. Theatrical company Dance Afire gathered at dusk, inviting passersbys to join the spectacle. Using carnival-barker inspired techniques, it did not take them long to gather a crowd. The performers wore Victorian steampunk costumes with a pirate twist, giving them an old-world feel.
As the crowd of wide eyed spectators observed, the dancers performed choreographed moves with flaming props: fiery sticks and batons, a flaming-ball covered hula hoop, candelabra style hand fans, fire parasols, fire whips, and the “dragon staff” among other intriguing and flammable devices.
Fire breathing was the highlight of the evening, illuminating the crowd’s smiling faces. This dangerous art requires intense safety training to prevent the performer from being burned or winding up with fuel in their lungs and stomach. The faces of the crowd showed a twinge of fear at every burst of flaming exhale.
The Dance Afire safety protocol is strictly adhered to, beginning with the costumes. The artists performing with fire must never wear synthetic fabrics. Fire-resistant fabrics such as cotton, denim and leather are worn. Synthetics will melt into the wearer’s skin in a fraction of a second, while natural fabrics tend to hold and wick fuel instead and resist igniting into a flame.’
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There are protocols Dance Afire follows regarding the fuel storage during performances. The fuel and fire tools being soaked in fuel are hidden off stage; monitored and protected from any possibility of a spark flying into the area accidentally. The fuel cans are individually labeled with the type of flammable chemicals inside (lamp oil, white gas, alcohol with chemicals dissolved in it for different colored flames) and kept sealed tightly when not in use.
Dance Afire performers are trained to properly and efficiently extinguish unintended fires. In the event there is a flame on a performer that is not part of the performance, there is a fail safe individual called a ‘safety’ that will inform the performer of the fire and allow it to be extinguished immediately without interrupting the performance. “Nobody dances without a safety” says Manko with Dance Afire.
A new innovation of the art Dance Afire has developed is what is knows as ‘The Human Candelabra’ which is an hour long performance consisting not of dance, but of “performers slowly dripping melted wax onto another performer’s nearly naked body until there’s enough to support a dozen or more burning candles” says Manko.
Accompanying these dramatic performances is the music of The Anarchoir of Radiant Days. This house band provides accompanying music (complete with a flame throwing tuba) for the wide variety of performances Dance Afire offers; ranging from individual dancers, group performances and large scale festival events.
Dance Afire was formed in 2008 by individual dancers who had been performing independently. The founders of Dance Afire go by the monikers Tequila, Loup de Lou and Fractal. Although Tequila is no longer performing with the group, Loup de Lou and Fractal with the additions of performers Bronwen and Manko create the core of the team. Dance Afire has a large and talented roster of performers who work on various performances as more of a theatrical company that a membership based group.