Tahoe Fire Dancers: Embracing the flow of fire dancing

Tahoe Fire Dancers

Indoor Flow Jam | April 28 | Omni Tahoe | South Lake Tahoe

Imagine fire spinning through the darkness, illuminating a troupe of dancers twirling beneath the Sierra Nevada stars. Tahoe Fire Dancers is a collective of artists who can be found performing their wild spectacle at festivals and special events throughout the region.

Their leader is Claire Nightingale. She was first introduced to poi (fire spinning) at lū’aus in Hawaii Kai on Oahu.

In 2014, after moving to Tahoe, she met friends who were into fire dancing and hula hooping. They took her under their wings and went to FireDrums annual festival in Wilseyville, Calif.

“Basically all day you learn how to do all these different tricks and fire props from the best teachers in the world,” says Nightingale. “And at night, it’s the biggest fire circle ever with everyone watching around the edges.”

Nightingale soon traveled to Burning Man with the fire-spinning groups Controlled Burn from Reno and Lucid Flame of South Lake Tahoe where she was part of the conclaves that dance in front of The Man before he burns

“My favorite thing about fire dancing is it gets you into a flow state. You focus only on that, nothing else, just your breathing.”     –Claire Nightingale

“At first, it was definitely a little scary,” she says. “Then I learned to have the right clothing, all cotton or wool. It’s also important to practice with the tools a lot before you set them on fire. You want to make sure you’re not hitting your skin. And when I want to try new tricks, I’ll wait to the end of the fuel, so it’s less dangerous.”

Nightingale is a teacher by day and a fire dancer by night. She lives in South Lake Tahoe and teaches English, physical education and computer science at George Whittell High School in Zephyr Cove, Nev.

“What’s unique about the fire-dancing community is everybody is all about helping each other learn and grow,” she says. “We skill share. In the fire circles, we lovingly heckle and say funny things like, ‘Do it better!’ or ‘Do it again!’ There’s an element of clowning in there, too. Your personality is reflected in your fire spinning.”

As the coordinator of the Tahoe Fire Dancers, she handles insurance and permitting with local fire departments. When the collective performs at a new site, a local fire marshal walks the space to make sure there is enough room and no ignitable fuel nearby.

At their shows, for every two fire dancers there is one safety monitor who manages the crowd, making sure everyone is safe. They also monitor the fuel station where the performers fill up out of ammo cans. Nearby, they keep a duvetyn, a heavy black cloth that smothers and extinguishes flames if need be.

“We take safety as our No. 1 concern,” says Nightingale. “When there are wildfires going on, we won’t spin fire out of solidarity, even though it’s a controlled art form. We take fire mitigation very seriously. We have a very good relationship with the fire departments in Nevada and California.”

Featured fire tools include hula hoops, fans, staffs, poi spinners, fire wings, umbrellas, fire crowns, palm candles, swords, hip belts and a scimitar balanced on the head while belly dancing. One implement is called the dragon staff, as long as a car axle with four wicks that sparkle and roll.

The dancers incorporate gymnastic acro-yoga into their vibrant spectacles. They do fire breathing using corn starch, which is less dangerous than lamp fuel. Lycopodium powder is used to create a fireball effect at the end of tools. Titanium sklitter also is put on the ends of the wicks so when they hit together, they ignite.

Tahoe Fire Dancers offer poi, fire safety and yoga classes. They will hold an indoor flow jam at Omni in South Lake Tahoe on April 28 where beginners can learn to use the tools without fire.

“My favorite thing about fire dancing is it gets you into a flow state,” says Nightingale. “You focus only on that, nothing else, just your breathing. Flow arts are made for the flow state. I’m drawn to it because they demand your full attention. The level of focus is almost meditative. You have to respect the fire. Once you get lost in it or lose your focus, that’s when you can get burned.” | Tahoe Fire Dancers on Facebook