Every Tuesday and Thursday night at the basketball court uphill from Maggie’s, students make magic with flaming objects. Some swing around staffs with burning wicks on both ends, spinning them so fast that they create an aerial ring of fire. Some twirl “dragon staffs,” which have five burning points on each end. A few perform with a poi, which is a flaming ball on the end of a long, lasso-like rope. Others throw Samoan fire knives, which are exactly what they sound like: a stick with a blazing torch on one end and a knife blade on the other. One brave student, Katie McGirt ’23, even juggles torches.
This is Lewis & Clark’s Fire Arts Club. Originally founded as part of the school’s Hawaii Club by students who wanted to perform with Samoan fire knives, the Fire Arts Club split off as its own entity to include other forms of fire arts. The club currently has about 20 members. This is a particularly large group, according to Associate Professor of Computer Science Peter Drake, who serves as the club’s faculty advisor.
“I don’t know how long this club has been together, but I’ve never seen this many members while I’ve been here,” Drake said.
Camille Hildum ’24 witnessed a performance her freshman year that inspired them to join.
“I thought, I have to be part of that,” Hildum said.
Co-leader Sunny Broadhead ’22 says that students practice with various non-flaming objects for at least three weeks before they are allowed to “burn,” or perform with lit torches.
“You practice with an unlit fire prop if you are ready for the full weight,” Broadhead said. “If not, we make things like Sockboys, which are socks with a tennis ball shoved in. You get creative. I saw someone make a practice staff with a broomstick and duct tape once.”
Although the club has performative elements, members are not required to perform in front of an audience. Many club members are there just to learn, not entertain others.
“I’m not much of a performer, but I’m here and it’s really fun,” Elizabeth Saltonstall ’24 said.
“I focus more on the fire than on anybody else, but I still get to feel good about my performance.”
There are stringent legal restrictions on performing with fire. Every club member needs to have a fire performer’s permit signed by the Multnomah County Fire Marshal, and they are prohibited from using fire during the dry season. The club performs with LEDs and other electric lights instead of fire from about May to September. This year, the Fire Marshal gave the club the green light to start burning again only recently, after significant rains.
Due in part to these precautions, Broadhead has never had anyone sustain a serious fire-related injury under her leadership. The only significant injury she has witnessed was two years ago when the club’s previous leader fractured her wrist leaping down from another performer’s shoulders. Today, acts where performers stand on each other’s shoulders are no longer performed, both because of the risk of injury and the risk of COVID-19.
The Fire Arts Club gave their first official performances of the year on Oct. 22 and 23 at 8 p.m. outside of Maggie’s Café. Performances included a dragon staff routine to the song “Hot Pink” by Let’s Eat Grandma, as well as a baton-twirling dance to “Cult of Dionysus” by The Orion Experience.
Wearing clown makeup, McGirt juggled torches to the creepy, psychedelic song “Heffalumps and Woozles” from Disney’s 1974 film “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.” To riotous applause, Broadhead and Colin Crompton ’21 did a collaborative performance in which Crompton swung a poi around Broadhead’s body without letting the flame touch her. Proving that the Fire Arts Club is not just for students, Peter Drake closed out the
second night with a Samoan fire
Broadhead believes that anybody who is curious should consider joining the Fire Arts Club.
“It’s not as scary as it looks,” Broadhead said. “It’s actually a lot of fun, and you probably won’t get your first burn until you get cocky, which is a long way down the road.”