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Davis, California

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Flames aren’t too hot to handle for Fire University

Some people get their kicks from riding motorcycles at dangerous speeds, while others jump out of planes or off of cliffs. Members of the Davis Fire University dance with fire.

For the past four years, the Davis Fire University has met in the E Street Plaza to practice and teach the art of fire dancing. Both UC Davis students and Davis area natives participate with the group, every Thursday at 9 p.m.

The members train with a variety of instruments. They use tools such as poi – Kevlar balls on fire at the end of chains – and staffs lit on fire for practice and performances.

Christopher “Aries” Henson, one of the founders who showed up on the plaza four years ago, began the fire dancing group by pumping music from car speakers and dancing. Other members had previously been part of an on-campus fire troupe before electing to branch off on their own.

The Fire University has three principles they stand behind: they do not accept donations, they teach anyone and they cannot be hired, Henson said.

“We’re a fire community, not so much a troupe,” he said.

The group fire danced problem-free for nine months before the legality of fire dancing was brought into question. The Downtown Davis Business Association met with the Davis Fire Department, which approved Fire University’s downtown activities. As long as the group does not play amplified music (they have since substituted car sound systems with drummers), their fire dancing is legal in Davis because of an uncommon ordinance allowing open flames in public.

Fire University member Adam Gordon, a sophomore psychology mjajor, said fire dancing is an art form that uses many different tools for varying effects.

“Fire dancing is basically any art form that incorporates fire into it,” Gordon said. “There are all sorts of tools at Fire University. There’s everything you can imagine – swords, hula hoops and really long ropes with fire at the end.”

With all the inherent variation in this art form, experienced members have begun experimenting with various complicated techniques.

Henson, who breathes fire, describes his art as being a human spray can. He spits a type of oil into the air while lighting it on fire. Other members take more creative routes, such as combining belly dancing with fans lit on fire.

Participants in the Fire University found their beginnings in fire dancing in other activities, such as martial arts. Nick Reynolds, a Davis area resident, started with European martial arts four years ago. To him, it was a natural progression from an unlit staff in martial arts to the lit staffs used in fire dancing.

Matt Sweeny, a UC Davis alumnus, said fire dancing is not as dangerous or difficult as it seems.

“It’s really nothing more than an illusion of danger,” said the fire dancer of four years.

While it is possible to catch on fire, flames are typically liquid gas on fire that quickly burns out. Reynolds, the fire safety director of the group, said he rarely has to extinguish anyone on fire – the last time he did was five months ago. However, the group does take safety serious.

“There’s a lot more fire safety here than you see,” Henson said.

While is may not be as difficult as it seems, experienced fire dancers offer advice to those interested in trying it with them.

“If you practice enough, you can learn it,” said Nick Abudi, sophomore viticulture major.

In February he started training for poi with tennis balls inside of socks, and then graduated to real poi.

“You learn certain moves and once you get them down it’s pretty hard to hurt yourself in poi” he said.

Henson said that patience and timing is all it takes to fire dance.

“You need to pay attention and slow down with fire in your hands,” he said.

Besides the bragging rights, what makes fire dancing worth it?

“It’s mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical – it’s a therapeutic dance,” said Dean Woo, a Davis resident.

KELLY KRAG-ARNOLD can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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