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Fire dancing ignites many people’s interest

By Erika Fricke Daily Planet Staff
Thursday March 15, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO – At 9 p.m. on a quiet night 20 to 30 people moved trance-like around the stage of a small park in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, waving their arms in large circles while weaving amongst each other. In each of their hands they carried a flaming torch.  

“When you’re working with fire you need to be completely in the moment,” said Jehanne Rogowski-Hale, who led the group. “You can’t be thinking about anything except the fire in your hands and the people around you.” 

Tuesday was the final night of a series of fire handling classes Rogowski-Hale teaches twice a month in her artist studio near the Ashby BART station. These classes are attracting crowds of students, drawn by the mystique of the art of handling fire. 

Thus far, Rogowski-Hale has taught 20 classes with between eight and 10 people per group. She teaches students to make their own long-lasting torches (with a 10 to 15 year life span), what lighter fluids to use and how to move safely while holding fire. Her protégés can be found lighting torches on Tuesday nights in the park or demonstrating their art at parties.  

“I saw fire-dancing at Burning Man” was a common refrain amongst the new devotees of the dance, who referred to the week-long art festival held in the Nevada desert, where art isn’t subject to the stricter rules of polite society. Most of them do not intend to perform publicly with fire; they took the class for the experience of working with fire – safely.  

Towards the end of this final lesson in the series, Rogowski-Hale passes out a box of matches to each of the graduates saying, “May you always have fire.”  

The concept is a first for many of the newly-trained fire handlers.  

Christina Garden of Berkeley wasn’t allowed to touch matches until she was 13; for her, dancing with lighted torches means delving into the forbidden. “It challenges me in what I’m most afraid of,” she said. “It’s just really exciting because of that.”  

Rogowski-Hale first worked with fire for the first time during a stage performance in 1992, and she fell in love with it. “The thing that surprised me and that I think is part of the allure is the sound,” she said.  

Berkeley resident Anca Mosiu agreed, describing what she hears when she grips the ends of two flaming torches. “It’s a big roar like a waterfall, only it’s fire,” she said. “It’s something that’s only slightly out of control but not really because it’s at the end of your hand.” 

As far as Rogowski-Hale can tell, she is the only one giving fire-handling lessons in the Bay Area. Some of the same skills are passed along through informal teaching, but in Rogowski-Hale’s experience many people tend to guard their knowledge. 

“That seems to be the way with circus skills, some people are protective,” she said. But Rogowski-Hale is not concerned about the growing number of fire-handlers coming out of her studio. “I don’t feel any worry about competition. You don’t not teach people about playing the piano.” 

At the end of the final choreographed dance, the handlers all brought their fire together to make a huge flaming torch that lit up the concrete stage they were dancing on. Afterwards, a few continued slowly moving the fire, twisting it around their bodies and through their legs in careful, precise motions. 

Fire dancing requires practice, said Jacob Corbin adding, “In that sense it’s very “martial arty.”  

“You need to practice a lot in order to be good,” he said. 

Corbin compared fire-handling to another art form with resurgent popularity, partner dancing. “You have to feel another person when you’re partner dancing,” he said, “and you have to feel the torch’s momentum in order to work with it.” 

While students began to pack up, an advanced student did a fire-eating demonstration. A cloud of smoke swirled out of the woman’s open mouth and Rogowski-Hale applauded.  

Kids, don’t try this trick at home.  

Fire-handling, said Rogowski-Hale, requires careful attention to safety issues. Although fabrics won’t catch on fire if they get bumped by a flaming torch, polyester may melt against the skin causing burns. The biggest danger for fire-handlers is their very flammable hair, which is why all of Rogowski-Hale’s students wear hats. She also keeps a thick blanket near by to smother any accidental flames.  

Rogowski-Hale considers herself liable for any accident that does occur. Although she does have her students sign disclaimers, she doesn’t have a permit to practice fire-handling in public. After nine years of working with fire, however, she’s developed a strict policy for dealing with the fire department or police. Do what they say.  

In Vancouver, Rogowski-Hale’s past residence, she developed a relationship with the fire department after they came out on a fire call and found her group dancing with lit torches. She said she’s had no complaints so far in the Bay Area.  

At the end of the evening students put out their torches – homemade under Rogowski-Hale’s tutelage and then many of them headed out together for a beer.  

Garden says that part of what attracts her to fire-handling is the community of “dare devil free thinkers” who are drawn to the same dangerous, exciting, element – fire. Rogowski-Hale agrees that fire-handling as an important source of community; she teaches, in part, to create that special community of similar minded artists.  

“With fire either people want to do it or don’t want to do it. There’s no middle ground here,” she said.