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A Look At The History & Different Types

Dance has long been a way for cultures to express themselves and tell stories about what they value. Depending on context and location, dancing can signify loss and mourning, joy, celebration, sensuality, religious worship or even war. Many cultures use it to honor their past and teach children and visitors about their heritage.

Fire dancing is a well-known dance form found in countries across the world. Discover more about this exhilarating display, including where to go to see it for yourself below. 

Table of Contents

What Is Fire Dancing?

Fire dancing is any dance involving fire, often through lit props carried by performers. It’s sometimes called other terms, like fire spinning, fire performance, fire twirling or fire manipulation. Routines are usually performed at night to provide a dark visual contrast with the flame. 

In addition to cultural demonstrations — often performed in village gathering places, historic sites or popular visitor destinations — fire dancing is common in settings like:

  • Concerts
  • Raves
  • Festivals
  • Cabarets 
  • Weddings
  • Parades
  • Clubs
  • Holidays

Most fire dancers — who may perform solo acts or as part of a group — wear costumes, depending on the context and intention. Variations range from sleek body paint to traditionally elaborate handmade pieces with grass, palms, flowers, seashells, feathers and coconuts. Costumes could include headdresses, skirts, jewelry and elaborate belts.

Performances can be pre-planned and carefully choreographed or more freestyle. Ancient fire dances were often a part of pre-battle rituals, starring warriors and intense drum beats. The extent and meaning of these performances vary between cultures and generations. Some are ceremonial or religious in nature, while others are carefree and expressive. Others tell a story or express a specific theme, with a clear beginning, middle and end, with performers acting as special characters. 

Basic fire dancing hopes to share a story or elicit a response from the viewer. You’ll see routines expressed through rhythmic, lively or intimate movements, set to all types of fire dance music. Music might involve peaceful sounds, ukuleles, conch shell instruments, flutes or drums.

How Do Fire Dancers Touch Fire?

Dancers protect themselves by dressing in natural, non-synthetic fibers — like cotton, silk or suede — to avoid the risk of melting their clothing onto their skin. Those with long hair will braid or secure it back, sometimes placing a bandana made of similar natural materials on top. They do not wear alcohol-based hair sprays or hazardous jewelry. Some may wear gauntlets or gloves for additional protection.

The fire dancing stage area is well prepared before a show, cleared of any clutter or debris. Fire dancers do not perform on uneven terrains, like areas with potholes or puddles. A fire extinguisher and fire blanket are never too far from the performance area, as well.

Behind the scenes, dancers do not perform unless they’re in a good state of mind, awake and alert. Most have been practicing a performance for days or weeks in advance. Before the show, they dip or soak their props in a dipping bucket filled with kerosene, white gas or paraffin lamp oil, saturating the wick. Props go to a separate spin-out area, where they wring the excess fuel from the wick and equipment to protect themselves and the audience. Any wicks that won’t be lit are covered with wick covers or bags.

If a performer touches fire during a performance, it’s typically intentional and too quick to hurt or leave behind any burns — like extinguishing a birthday candle between your fingers. If the performance includes fire-eating, the dancer only puts the flame in their mouth long enough to extinguish it with their lips or breath. They are careful not to inhale.

The History of Fire Dancing

Fire dancing history spans countries, as many cultures have used dance as an important part of ceremonies, gatherings and storytelling. One example is the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, which celebrates summer with traditional rituals to appease fairy folk. Celebrations include fire dancing, communal bonfires, processions, live music and elaborate performances. Because fire and dancing are as old as humanity itself, similar stories and celebrations exist globally.

Perhaps the most well-known and historically rich region for fire dancing is Polynesia, particularly the Tahitian and Samoan cultures.

The Ancient Art of Fire Dancing in Polynesian Culture

Most of what we know about fire dancing comes from Tahiti and Samoa. Records show ancient Polynesian fire dancers from mountain villages using war clubs in their performances to demonstrate their abilities in battle. Today, the art form still exists at ceremonies and community events.

Samoa regarded dance as a type of poetry and common language, with routines telling stories about shared values or celebrations. Movements were often graceful or comic, with colorful costumes and rhythms. Since early Tahitian indigenous people did not have a known written language until the 1700s, histories were recorded through oral traditions, like singing and chanting, and shared through expressive dance. Many Tahitians danced because they believed it was an essential part of spirit and life.

Some people groups also used dance to worship or communicate with deities, with sacred performances centered around fertility and abundance. Others were less sacred, performed to entertain chiefs and neighbors. Costumes often involved hip belts, flower crowns, leaves and feathers, with thematic stories sometimes showcasing more mundane parts of life, like husking coconuts.

Today, Polynesian fire dancing has grown to incorporate dance techniques from other cultures, like jazz, salsa and belly dance, to create fusion performances and intricate dramas or pageants.

The Knife Dance

Polynesian fire dancing evolved from the traditional Samoan knife dance, known as Ailao Afi, an ancient warrior exhibition performed at important ceremonies. The ritual first involved a club, then a nifo’oti, or carved war knife. During the knife dance, the warrior would twirl and spin, performing acrobatic tricks, sometimes with props. Fire was eventually added to the ritual, creating the fire dance.

In some regions, the rite of fire dancing started as young as four or five years of age. Children trained and learned the art of knife dancing with dull or wooden weapons to practice control and discipline until they were ready to add fire and sharper blades.

Migration From Polynesia

When the Māori people left Polynesia and made their way to the shores of New Zealand, they brought with them land cultivation techniques, vegetables and dance. The New Zealand Māori people are considered the originators of poi fire dancing or poi spinning. Polynesian culture also expanded to Hawaii, where poi and fire dancing were combined with native Hawaiian luaus and Samoan knife dancing. 

Types of Fire Dancing

Fire dancing types and techniques vary, depending on their culture of origin, audience and social context. Poi is among the most common, but you’ll find other Tahitian, Samoan and Hawaiian-inspired movements in performances across the world.

Poi Fire Dancing

Poi fire dancing comes from Māori culture. Performers swing a chain or rope around their bodies, while a weighted ball and wick on each end are on fire. Dancers make large, circular motions encompassing their bodies, usually to the beat of the music. Historically, poi was a way for men to train for battle and women to stay flexible for weaving and similar activities. Many dancers today appreciate these same fitness benefits and use poi to build strength and improve coordination. 

Original poi equipment used rocks and animal hide slings to hurl at opponents or animal prey. Fire was added generations later as poi became a popular dance form for cultural expression. Today, you might find poi infused with other dancing techniques or modern-day equipment, like LED lights and flags.

Tahitian Styles

Many Tahitian fire dancing routines are set to the sound of the fa’atete, drums made from coconut wood. A few traditional dance forms — which may or may not involve fire, depending on the context — include:

  • Otea: The otea involves dancers who move their hips to the beat of wooden drums, telling a story or expressing a theme.
  • ‘Aparima: ‘Aparima dances are fast and set to equally fast music.
  • Pa’o’a: In a pa’o’a dance, a couple may perform a sensual dance while surrounded by dancers sitting and chanting in a circle.
  • Hivinau: Hivinau dancers assemble into a large circle, chanting throughout the performance.

Samoan Styles

Samoan dances have vast differences, depending on who the dancer is and why they’re putting on the performance. Traditional styles include:

  • Taualuga: The Taualuga dance is a graceful, prestigious dance often reserved as the grand finale for celebrations. It’s set to simple drum beats and usually performed by young, single dancers in extravagant handsewn costumes with beadwork. 
  • Fa’ataupati: The Fa’ataupati, also known as the Samoan Slap Dance, actually began as a way to shoo mosquitoes. Many dancers build on this lore, creating a comedic or overly exasperated routine to start the show before beginning traditional dance moves.
  • Manu Siva Tau: The Manu Siva Tau was a traditional war dance reserved for battle and performed with a war chant. Today, you might hear it before Samoan sports games.

Hawaiian Styles

Fire dancing in Hawaii is diverse, involving various stunts, movements, props and manipulation tactics. There is a strong focus on athleticism, technique and entertainment, so expect daring or jaw-dropping displays with nunchucks, jump ropes and adapted renditions of the traditional knife dance.

Fire dances are often a part of island luaus, which involve large communal feasts, entertainment and hula dancing. While they’re common during special events, many islands put on regular shows for visitors to enjoy.

Types of Fire Dancing Props

Where there is fire dancing, there are usually props to enhance the performance. Dancers use props to tell a story, illustrate a theme, create a surprising visual effect or simply wow the audience with impressive, daring maneuvers involving open flames.

Some common fire dancing equipment and props include:

  • Batons, clubs and staffs: Dancers twirl and spin batons, clubs and staffs around their bodies. These props are made of wood or metal with wicks on the end. Some performers may juggle smaller lit batons.
  • Hoops: Fire hoops have wicks on each spoke or around the entire diameter. Dancers perform inside the lit hoop, manipulating it around their bodies. Larger hoops, like Cyr wheels, are tall enough to fit the dancer inside, clutching the rim and rolling in different directions throughout the routine.
  • Drum sticks: Drum sticks can be juggled, twirled or used to beat the drums during the performance.
  • Torches: Large and palm-sized torches are held or juggled through the performance. Many parade participants carry torches to light up the viewing area for the audience.
  • Fans: Dancers use Kevlar or welded metal fans to manipulate the fire for visual effect, while some fans have spokes that are lit on fire themselves.
  • Whips: Fire whips are made of braided natural fibers and metal handles. When cracked, they create large flames and visible fire trails in the air.
  • Umbrellas: Fire umbrellas are part of intricate performances and have lit wicks on the end.
  • Swords: Some swords are made for use in fire dances, where the performer will twirl, wave or even swallow them while lit. Certain dances with swords pay homage to original knife dances and war performances.

Where You Can See Fire Dancing

You can see fire dancing in many countries and cities with a history of dance or fire rituals. Many destinations in the Polynesian islands have fire dancing festivals and performances, including Tahiti and Samoa. One such destination is the World Knife Fire Dance Competition at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Samoa, where you can go for an inside look at some of the world’s best performances and dancers. You will also find fire dances at island beaches, resorts and festivals.

See more Polynesian influence in places like Hawaii and New Zealand or other cultural interpretations of fire dancing in Scotland during the Beltane Fire Festival or South Africa for AfrikaBurn. Burning Man, an annual festival in Nevada, also features fire displays and performances.

Experience World Cultures on a Windstar Cruise

Windstar Cruises offers an immersive, refined alternative to traditional cruising. Our cruise ships only carry around 300 travelers at once — often fewer — so you are guaranteed attentive, personalized service and relaxation free of distraction. Shore excursions focus on immersion into local cultures and unique experiences tailored to your specific interests.

Join Windstar Cruises to experience world cultures, including fire dancing, on excursions like:

  • Tahiti to witness sparkling lagoons and island life across Bora Bora, Moorea, Fakarava and more.
  • Australia and New Zealand, where you can immerse yourself in traditional Māori history, as well as other unique regional offerings.
  • South Pacific cruises that journey to places like Polynesia — home to traditional poi fire dancing— as well as Indonesia and the Great Barrier Reef.

Explore cruise options today and contact us to start planning your ocean getaway.

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