Playing with fire is just another way for Bob Lamm and Mike Blomberg to express themselves

Words by Turner Olson
Video and Photos by Brooke Haesemeyer

Poi is a Maori word meaning “ball on a string.” Maori warriors originally used poi as a form of exercise to train for battle or hunting. Eventually, poi was used as a form of storytelling and dance.

Fire dancers Bob Lamm and Mike Blomberg

The art of dipping poi balls into fuel and lighting them on fire did not begin until the mid-20th century, as a progression of the Samoan fire .

Fast forward to today and poi is considered an art form. Bob Lamm and Mike Blomberg are fire dancers based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“Nunchucks was something I was doing beforehand, and when I started it on fire it was something to avoid at the edges,” Lamm said, “After a while I got more comfortable with it. Now it’s to the point where I get burned more when I’m cooking.”

It was during the period from the mid-1990’s to early 2000 that fire dancing exploded in North America. Before then, it had been associated with little-known ethnic traditions and the circus.

Performances are held at places such as rock concerts raves, night clubs, beach parties, camping festivals and cabarets. Interest and knowledge have been disseminated by the internet.

Lamm and Blomberg said the Midwest offers the perfect conditions to practice their craft.

“The seasons in the Midwest mean that different aesthetics can apply to the fire,” Blomberg said.

Devan Bean, for Chicago’s Full Moon Jam, thinks the community is close because it takes a very specific mindset to dance with fire.

“In order to light things on fire in the first place, one must be somewhat bold, curious, creative and active. It takes motivation, courage and curiosity to learn the motions necessary to spin safely,” Bean said.

The art form’s popularity is still relatively small, but growing. Those involved in the fire-spinning community say the events create a family-type atmosphere.

“Everybody’s so nice,” Lamm said. “Most people you can walk right up and they’ll let you play with their props.”

The size of the community means it is easier to make an impact. The community has built-in measures against the stealing of other’s work.

“You never have to worry about getting credit for a trick,” Blomberg said. “It’s automatically something that comes up in the first part of the conversation. You say ‘I learned this from so-and-so.’”

In order to get started in fire dancing, there is some basic gear and safety equipment required.

“Generally speaking, for fire, you’ll need your prop, a Duvetyn cloth or damp cotton towel, proper fueling gear including a fuel bucket, secondary fuel container, funnels, a locking gear box, lights, and signs for your fueling area.” said Matt Ferguson, manager of Firetoys in North America .

Bob Lamm spitting fire.

Although you may not have a neighborhood poi store, there are numerous places online to purchase the necessary gear.

Of course, once the gear is acquired, there is still the matter of finding a place to practice fire dancing.

“Most spinners will spin in their backyard or on private property, following the same laws that apply to open flames, such as bonfires and fireworks, but restrictions on open flames can vary between states and counties” Bean said.

Fire spinning is not for everyone, however. It can be very dangerous and requires hours of practice before the prop is even lit on fire.

“Practice with your props until you are super comfortable and solid long before you light up the first time,” said Ferguson, “Have someone more knowledgeable than yourself present the first time you do.”