Painting the Night

By on September 29, 2008

By Billy Garland

In a local Louisville park, a crowd stands seemingly caught in a subconscious energy. Forgetting the scent of kerosene in the air, the night seems darker than normal compared to the spinning balls of fire and the man dancing within them. While this may sound like an excerpt from a science fiction story, this display is one viewed by many U of L students and spectators around Louisville.
An extreme dance form finding its roots in the native Maori culture of New Zealand, Fire Poi has remained primarily an underground art form in the U.S. over the past decades. The performers of Fire Poi swing two flaming weighted balls, attached to long chains in a series of circular patterns around their body. Adding to the danger, the performer also moves in rhythm to a beat, whether it is to audible music or merely an internal rhythm of the dancer. In many instances, the “Poist” may even blow fire while performing, using only the spinning poi to light the cloud of kerosene he or she expels from his or her mouth.
Now serving as home for two separate Fire Poi organizations, this awe inspiring feat has found a base here in Louisville. A Google search for “Fire Poi Louisville” returns over nine thousand hits. Many U of L students have been fortunate to see one of the various displays happening in Louisville area parks such as Cherokee Park and Central Park. Some like U of L Junior, John Ballard have even found another culture of which to be a part.
“Fire poi is an amazing art form,” Ballard said. “It uses the natural elements of the Earth to put on an incredible display.”
Fire Poi has begun to emerge and gain a larger following due largely to a sub culture centering around a better known dance form, sharing many of the same stylistic elements.
“Glow Sticking,” a term coined by glowsticking.com, is a different dance form in which the performer manipulates glow sticks in artistic ways, much the same as Poi.
The lack of fire allows the dancer to come into contact with the light they are manipulating. This ability has led to a concept called tracing in which the “glow sticker” traces the outline of their body.
“That is where ‘Glow Sticking’ has moved away from Fire Poi over the past several years,” Bruce Huff, former representative for glowsticking.com, said. “Fire Poi deals more with sweeping circular motions, and is more of a flowing art form.
Glow sticking works with string manipulations and free hand work, where the ‘sticker’ actually holds the light they are manipulating. Fire Poi performers aren’t able to do that because of the flames.”
Despite these limitations, Fire Poi remains an amazingly entertaining event. The dangerous nature of the sport and the techniques necessary, to safely use the tools of the trade, require a certain amount of training.
Those who aspire to master this danger filled dance must first learn the much needed skills using less lethal instruments.
“Training really depends on the particular Poi Communing you are in,” Huff said. “Normally you start off with socks stuffed with tennis balls and work your way up. All you need is some sort of string with something heavy attached to the end.”
The hopefuls use these practice tools as they learn fundamentals, laying the foundation for their future fire wielding. Socks and tennis balls teach a far less painful lesson to the inexperienced Poists.
“Why would someone ever attempt to do that,” is a common question asked by new viewers of the sport.
The answer to this question can be found by simply talking to a practitioner of the enigmatic dance form.
While Huff admits that he is not a “Poist,” he is a long time “glow sticker and avid follower of the Poi Communities.
“There is nothing like dancing with the light,” Huff Said. “It is awesome to be there to paint the night with the fire of the lights.”
Fire Poi organizations can be found via the internet, and it is not uncommon to round a corner in Cherokee Park on a clear night and find spinning orbs of fire circling a lone dancer, “painting the night with the fire of his lights.”

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