They swing fireballs through the air, dancing to the beat of percussions or keeping in time to the rhythm of the music, their sweaty bare torsos in perpetual motion as their hands deftly and skillfully etch fiery patterns in the dark night sky.
You mostly find fire dancing, a form of entertainment, offered within the vicinity of beach resorts in Boracay, Puerto Galera, Panglao and Palawan in the Philippines, and no doubt, in other exotic locations in the world such as Hawaii, the Bahamas, Ibiza, and in New Zealand where, Wikipedia states, it originated from the Maori people.
Also commonly known as POI, the term is loosely used to refer to the performance art and the equipment used by fire dancers. The dancers do NOT necessarily have to use fire, as others prefer to use “safer” elements such as luminous materials, swatches and strips of brightly colored neon fabric or cloth, or colored bulbs and handy light sources such as flashlights. Poi is practiced by both male and female performers, though a majority of known practitioners in the Philippines are male.
Traditional Maori poi is generally performed in group choreography at cultural events, with vocal and musical accompaniment. By contrast, modern poi is generally performed by individuals, without singing and with less structured choreography.
Local fire poi practitioners often use jeans cut in strips and bound together to form a “ball” which is then dipped in kerosene or gasoline, attached to a stainless steel chain with a swivel, as a fire source. Practical and very affordable, but it poses danger to the dancer as the burning fabric tends to drip off in clumps.
Ms. Deborah N. Tangunan, proprietress of Iraya Performance Gear Philippines, offers professional fire performance gear and clothing since 2011. Her fire poi sets are made with electroplated pro-series chains and Kevlar (fire proof) cloth which, with proper handling and maintenance, has a lifespan of at least a year for the active fire dancer. She imports her materials from Flowtoys and Home of Poi which is based in New Zealand, and is able to sell them at a much lower price compared to another local supplier since she and her team assemble the fire poi sets locally.
I was privileged to spend a night with two men of poi at the Alona Tropical Beach Resort (http://www.alonatropicalbeachresort.com) owned by the Honorable Mayor Leonila P. Montero in Panglao, Bohol where we shot some of the routines at Alona Beach.
Joseph Laurden, a resort worker, and his longtime college buddy Florante Ybanez who is finishing his studies in Marine Transportation, have been practicing fire dancing as a hobby and as an additional source of income for some years now.
They are often contracted to perform fire dancing at the various beach resorts in Panglao during the weekends (Friday to Sunday) when occupancy is at its peak, during holidays, and at town fiestas and other special events.
According to Joseph, fire dancing has helped pay off some of his school expenses in college. From folk and modern dancing, he ventured into poi since it was something uncommon. He teaches some kids to compete every now and then and looks forward to the time when poi becomes accepted as a dance sport nationwide.
Florante, on the other hand, considers fire dancing as a form of “leisure” activity, a break from his studies, and a way for him to maintain his lean physique.
“Seldom will you find a fire dancer who is chubby as the routines are physically taxing and the heat from the fireballs causes one to sweat profusely,” he shares.
As there is no professional association or organization for poi dancers in Panglao (or in the Philippines for that matter), they create their own routines and equipment. Since Kevlar is quite expensive and not readily available in the province, they improvise or order from Manila where there are currently only two known suppliers of professional poi gear.
According to them, the youngest fire poi dancer in Panglao is a 14 year old kid who gets his training from his father, a former fire poi dancer, who googles the routines on youtube and then teaches it to his son.
Routines vary with skill and dexterity but the basics which every fire poi dancer must know include the helicopter, butterfly, double infinity, anti-spin, hyperloops, and flower.
Under the Leg moves with kicks: A technician might really appreciate the fluidity of a poi artist doing under the leg movements without lifting the leg, yet a dancer might find a lot more expression in the possibilities created when one does lift the leg while performing under the leg patterns, offering an array of kick opportunities.
For inquiries on professional POI gear, you may contact:
Iraya Performance Gear Philippines
NIGS Bldg., C.P. Garcia Ave. corner Velasquez St.
University of the Philippines, Diliman Campus, Quezon City