Culture of Poi

By Sarah Kobal

Every Friday afternoon at the Botanical Gardens, students meet up to sing, play the African drums, and sometimes dance with fire. When it gets dark, the fire dancers whip out their poi and perform fire dancing while people watch. Students sit with their groups of friends – some drinking wine, others sitting in silence – in awe of the fire.

Speaking with energy and moving his hands to help with his explanations, Martin Bentley, who’s been a fire dancer for three years, explains how fire dancing is an art, how one loses themselves completely through the movement of fire dancing. “Fire dancing is very interesting because it relaxes you and is very mesmerising,” says Saba Marzban, a member of the Drum society.

As there is a large variety of poi to choose from, the most popular poi that people use are fire poi. There are other choices like poi staffs, Light Emitting Diode (LED) poi and devil sticks which create different effects with patterns and colours. Poi does not necessarily need to be set alight because those who dislike dancing with lighted poi tend to use LED poi. LED poi change colour as you twirl them and, while safe, are as beautiful as fire dancing. “Poi is just fun. There is such a wide variety with how people spin their poi. I really like the French spinning style. They influenced each other and their technique is very elegant. They are tight in their style; it’s more controlled and flowy,” explains Bentley.
Bentley fire dances with poi chains, which he modifies to suit him best when he spins with them. He places small weights on the chains, just below the loops for his fingers, so when he fire dances, he can create and perform many spectacular moves that leave the audience in awe. Fire dancers sometimes modify their poi to their own preferences so they can perform a wider variety of moves.
Fire dancers must make sure that they are not wearing flammable clothing and must wear hats to protect their hair from being set alight. There must always be a person nearby (known as the ”safety”), with a either a bucket of water or a fire resistant blanket to throw on the fire dancer, if the fire dancer is set alight. After leaving poi in paraffin for a while, the fire dancer flicks the excess paraffin off the poi before starting, so as not to set the entire area alight. “This whole procedure before fire dancing is very important to do because when playing around with fire, one needs to also bear in mind that fire is still very dangerous, so we are always cautious when we are about to fire dance,” Bentley says.

Fire dancers sometimes follow the beat of the drums in the background whilst they twirl the poi, doing moves such as the ‘butterfly’ and ‘weave’. ‘Stalls’ which is when the poi chains are left lingering in the air are included in the complex movements performed by fire dancers. As the fire is being twirled, it leaves a trail of light, “which creates a beautiful display of different shades of yellows, oranges, blues and silver,” says Tara Lancaster, a member of the Drum Society.

“The poi chains are twirled with such energy; such as passion and elegance,” explains Lancaster. “Everyone has their own style and makes their moves unique to themselves,” says Bentley. “If a fire dancer spins by himself for a while, they tend to develop their own style as opposed to people practising in groups; they tend to develop similar techniques.”
Lancaster believes that in Drum Society, “everyone can relate to each other because of the fire and relaxation that is created from the others and the drums being played. It’s awesome because a lot of the members have a similar interest in art and are musically inclined.”
Rhodes has its own style of fire dancing. It’s a “cool style”. Bentley really enjoys teaching people how to spin because he can also learn new moves by watching the mistakes of others. Teaching people gives him new ideas which he works on until perfected. Bentley usually teaches spinning at the Drum Society. He is passionate about fire dancing and is always optimistic when teaching. “I find the concepts are easier to learn than the actual moves, so when I teach people around me, I deal more with concepts, “ he says. “Once the concept of the move is understood, then there is so much to do with that move! So many different varieties one can choose from!”
The best way to learn how to spin is to teach yourself. Just experiment with practice poi (which are easily made by putting beans in knee length socks) and you will easily learn new moves. Another way to learn is to watch videos on the internet. This is how Bentley learned. Whenever he has free time, he simply whips out his two socks (or two lanyards with keys attached to them if he doesn’t have his socks) from his bag to spin with, and spins away until his next lecture. “Socks are great to learn with because they don’t tangle as badly as chains do,” he says.
Fire dancers are always learning how to perform new moves because poi moves are not limited, even though you could end up hitting yourself in the face when you make a mistake. “Sometimes when I make mistakes, I find new moves from them and work on those moves,” explains Bentley.
Bentley says that, “some use fire dancing as a form of meditation… how they just dance without thinking of what moves to use next”. He adds that he “loves fire dancing, especially when in front of a large audience. Knowing everyone is watching you and only you – it’s such a buzz! You get to meet so many cool people, learn new moves and just enjoy the time there.”

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