Fire dancers of Richmond gear up for a new season

Amelia Heymann
Contributing Writer

Fire dancers like Courtney Zila Thomas (above) practice with fire fans, swords and staffs. Photo by Amelia Heymann

Warmer weather means more fire.  It’s currently the offseason for fire dancing, but once spring comes around there’ll be more people performing outside.

Richmond is home to many groups of artists and performers alike, including fire dancers. In a mixture of flame and rhythms these individuals wield fire in bright displays. 

Fire dancers typically belong to flow arts groups, which include many different kinds of flow artists. Flow artists perform and practice with props such as hula hoops and poi, two balls on the end of a string that are swung around. There are several flow arts groups in Richmond, including the Party Liberation Front, Sinful and the Kemetic Warriors.

The Kemetic Warriors and the Party Liberation Front are both mainly fire dancing groups. The Kemetic Warriors are different from other groups in that they combine martial arts, weapons, poetry and African American values in their performances. A member of the Kemetic Warriors said that these values were a modern take on the Forty-Two Characteristics of Maat, an ancient Egyptian concept of living every day with honor and truth with your community and family.

“Family values, being true to yourself, thinking for yourself and learning something new each day is what true African Americans value,” said James Square, one of the founders of the Kemetic Warriors.

Square got started in the scene by holding spin jams with members of the Party Liberation Front. A spin jam is when a group of fire dancers come together and perform, and they can be formal or informal. Square started the Kemetic Warriors with Frederic Boggan and Tracy Flemming. 

“We have come to the conclusion that we don’t like the way black people are portrayed in the media,” Square said. “The Kemetic Warriors decided to tell the real side of the story.”

Square said in movies about ancient Egypt, characters are often portrayed by white actors, distorting the historical accuracy. 

By using their performance skills, the Kemetic Warriors create entertainment that portrays African Americans in a light they wish to be seen in.

Square specializes in single and dual fire swords, fire staff and single and dual fans. Fire fans are metal fans with wicks sticking out of the ends. These are often swung around by the user’s fingers, or waved in a flirtatious manner like feathered fans in a burlesque. 

Another popular prop used in fire dancing is the hoop, as used by performer Courtney Zila Thomas.  As a member of the Party Liberation Front, Thomas spins a hula hoop with light wicks sticking out of the side around her torso.  However, as skilled as Thomas and other performers are, there is the inevitability of catching on fire. A fire dancer’s reaction to catching on fire depends on the situation.

“Depends on what catches,” Thomas said. “If it’s hair or clothing there is usually what we call a fire safety, and that person extinguishes the flames, or if it’s skin I just … shake it off.”

In addition to always having a fire safety person present, fire dancers wear fire-resistant clothing to make sure catching on fire doesn’t become a disaster.

Another important technicality when playing with fire is to use white lamp oil. Local flow artist and president of VCU’s Flow Arts club Courtney Gabriel said while most people think you can use kerosene or lighter fluid, those kinds of oil tend to fall off of the props, becoming a huge fire hazard.

Gabriel also said for those interested in fire dancing it’s not a good idea to start burning right away, but instead to master flow arts first. You can attend a jam session off-campus at Dogtown Dance Theatre for $5, or you could attend a meeting just for VCU students at VCU’s Flow Arts club. Club meetings are giant jam sessions where people practice their moves and share tricks. They mostly use hula-hoops, flow wands and poi, and just recently acquired a staff.   

“We see people doing poi in the park or hooping and stuff, and we were like ‘we wanna get all of those people all together,’” vice president Allison Warth said.

Beginners are also greatly encouraged to come out.

“If there are people getting into flow arts we want them to come out and practice with us,” Gabriel said. “When you’re first getting into flow arts it’s good to practice around people who have a lot more experience with different kinds of tricks and stuff, because then you get inspiration from them to do different things.”

Gabriel said people learn flow arts faster from practicing with people in real life, rather than watching Youtube tutorials as most people do when trying to learn new skills.

Those interested in attending a meeting can come out on weekends to Harris Hall room 101 from 7-9 p.m., or outside in the Commons plaza.

Events may begin at local spots as early as March. Both Square and Warth said that at the beginning of the spring semester we can look forward to more fire dancing performances as the year goes on.

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