About a week ago, Sage got in touch with me to ask if I’d heard anything about some “national fire performance championship.” I had not.
I started looking around. It seems that they have a profile and group on MurdochSpace, likewise a profile and group on Tribe. They have no independent website that I can find. There are no personal names associated with any of these accounts that I can find, but the person behind them appears to be in either Austin or Marble Falls.
They posted the same canned message to numerous groups on Tribe. There are a few red flags in it. Any post that starts out “This is an automated reply” does not show a lot of care. They are trying to interest DJs to perform (presumably for free) on the promise that “professional scouts” will be there; trying to interest judges with all the skills apparently needed to run this event; they warn that “space is limited to 2500 people at the event” (2500 is the maximum size of an event before you get into a much stricter level of official oversight) and the breathless “RSVP ASAP.” Plus the price, which is kind of high: They’re charging $30/person/night for spectators, and $40/person/night for performers. Compare that to the campground’s fees of $12/person/night. Of course, you also get a year’s membership in the (nonexistent) National Fire Performance League for the price of admission.
This event is apparently going to be taking place in about a month (Sept 26â€“28), just down the road from me at a private campground in New Braunfels, and I hadn’t heard about it. I started asking other firedancers. There are a lot of firedancers in central Texas, and we’re a pretty tight-knit group. Although a lot of people had heard about the event, nobody knew who was behind it. That is a very big red flag. It would be impossible to mount a successful firedancing event in central Texas that would welcome 2500 people without one of my firedancing friends being somehow involved, or at least knowing someone who was. I don’t claim to be the hub of central-Texas firedancing, but I am reasonably well-connected. And organizing an event with 2500 people requires a lot of hands. Burning Flipside has been around for 10 years and has grown to be about 2500 people. There are at least 100 people showing up for planning meetings months in advance; there are probably at least 500 people who contribute their labor at the event and just before it. Admittedly, Flipside is heavy on the infrastructure, but even if this event had one-tenth the staffing, that would suggest ten people meeting months in advance and fifty people who planned on being involved at the event (and those people would need to be lined up by now)â€”and fifty workers is probably well below a practical minimum for an event of 2500. In any case, I am confident that I would know someone who would know one of those fifty. Flipside brings me to another point: that they are (apparently) organizing this without drawing on the depth of talent and experience the burner community has in exactly this kind of event. The campground, as I understand it, is 50 acres, and is probably too small for 2500 people.
A couple of people mentioned that they had tried to get additional information from the organizers, to no avail. Indeed, the organizers seem to have made it a point to be anonymous and uncommunicative. Especially in a tight-knit community, that invites distrust. A couple years ago, a guy named Tedward, a stalwart of the firedancing community, mooted the idea of a fire-performance competition. He raised the idea on Tribe and discussed it there at some length. It was a very controversial idea, but to his credit, he attempted to work out the form of the event though public consensus. His event never took place because a sponsor backed out. Even if we allowed for the sake of argument that the organizers could run this event safely and efficiently (which I do not), we would still be left with an event that reflects only interests of a small group of organizers, not the broader fire community.
Today, I spoke to the Comal County fire marshall. He had not heard about this event. He pointed out that as long as it’s outdoors, there’s not much he can do to regulate it beyond requiring that the grass be mowed. But it still concerns me. It would be very easy for an event with this many people and fire being the central attraction to go wrong. Fire performance always occupies a gray zone with the authorities. We can try to get on their good side, we can hope to escape attention, or we can wind up on their bad side. An event as big as this purports to be would not escape attention in Comal County, so it would only make sense to get on their good side as a precautionary measure. If it went very wrong, it could have serious repercussions for fire performers throughout the state or even the country. A number of people, myself included, are concerned that this is either a scam, or (more likely) being run by people who don’t know what they’re doing. In either case, that ups the odds of something going wrong. I don’t want to see anyone get burned, literally or figuratively.
I have left a message with the campground operators to see if I can get some information from them.
In the end, I think we may be saved by their incompetence. They haven’t done much to create interest in the event, and what little they’ve created has been mostly negative, as far as I can tell. So I’d be surprised if they get 250 people. Even with more competent organizing, it would be difficult to launch an event like this and get 2500 people to show up in its first year.
I just spoke briefly with someone in the campgroundâ€™s business office. She didnâ€™t really know much about the event. The event organizers have not reserved the entire campground, or any section of itâ€”theyâ€™ll just be sharing the space with regular campground visitors. So Iâ€™m not sure how the organizers will limit attendance to only those people who have paid for their event. The campground has about 200 campsites for overnighters, but sees up to 3000 people during the day.
Please see my follow-up post.
I’m not sure I can sit down and squeeze everything I might want to say about Flipside into a single blog postâ€”or that I even want to commit all those thoughts to print. I may wind up dribbling out a few more posts on the subject over the coming days.
In the meantime, here’s one tidbit. In a conversation with someone I met at Flipside, he asked me about firespinningâ€”specifically, if I had noticed any physical benefits. I think my answer might make a good blog entry.
I’ve always been a klutz. I attribute this in part to being left-handed, partly to a growth spurt when I was 13 that left me a stranger in my own body. But I think that a big part of this klutziness was a form of learned helplessness: I had learned that I tend to break, or scratch, or knock over things, so I accepted that as normal, and never made an effort not to.
With firedancing, there’s an obvious need to be precise in your motions. There are also strong incentives to practiceâ€”practicing is enjoyable in its own right, and it’s easy to make rapid progress by practicing, especially as a beginner. Firedancing also forces one to be more aware of the spatial relationship between one’s body and its surroundings.
So a lesson that I learned at an intuitive level (and later at an intellectual level) was that I didn’t necessarily need to be a klutz. I was capable of using my body the way I wanted if I put a little care into it. I became more aware of how my body related to my surroundings, and more conscious of how I moved in general.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that I’m graceful today, I’m more mindful and precise in my movements, and that has been a benefit.
I attended the Fall ’07 round of Wildfire, a combination training camp and festival for firedancers, from September 20 to 23. This was the sixth running of Wildfire, which is held twice a year. It was fun.
I was nominally attending as a vendor, thanks to my fire-gear sideline. In fact, the Wildfire organizers had invited me to attend the previous one as a vendor, but that came just a week after Flipside was over, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to even think about it, much less prepare for it. But I told myself I’d try to make this one, and I did.
I had an excess of free time in the weeks leading up to Wildfire, and I put some of that time to good use running up inventory to bring.
Right off the bat, I’ll say that the vending aspect of the event was a complete bust. I didn’t sell a goddamned quick-link. Not many of my business cards even got picked up.
Having gotten that out of the way, I’m glad I went. It’s the only event like it that I know of, and I had a good time.
It wasn’t a burner event, strictly speakingâ€”the fact that vendors were present pretty much rules that out. But it adhered to other burner principles: all volunteer, leave no trace. Two aspects gave it a really distinctive vibe: it was explicitly meant to be educational, not recreational, and everyone there was a fire performer of some stripe. Almost everyone had a set of poi or some other kind of toy at hand all the time, and there was probably as much teaching going on outside of the scheduled classes as within them. Another interesting difference between WF and a burner event is that meals were communal. People volunteered for kitchen shifts, and the food had been paid for as part of the admission price. While this introduces some complications, simply getting everyone sitting down together family-style also had a positive effect on the mood.
Days were filled with five simultaneous tracks by five sessions per day. I didn’t come close to filling my own class schedule. Classes I did take: intro to double staff, hoop making, poi geekery, choreography. They were all valuable to some extent. I also discovered upon arrival that I was on the board as leading a class in spotter training (something I’ve worked on before). I wasn’t sure how that happened, and I came with neither my training equipment nor handouts, so all I could do was stand there and talk. The talky part of spotter training isn’t especially valuable (the hands-on part is where it’s at), and so I was not thrilled with my presentation. I also spent a lot of time just hanging out with other spinners, teaching moves or learning moves from other people. There were, of course, lots of other classes (some of which I really should have made an effort to catch), including fire breathing, fire eating, flesh transfer, fire swords, stagecraft, etc. The teaching style at Wildfire is fairly traditional, and there’s considerable discussion on the Wildfire discussion board regarding whether a more free-form approach would be more effective.
The venue is a private campground with some permanent structures, including a kitchen, communal bathroom, and the hall that was used as the vendor area. There were also some quasi-tent shelters with canvas walls and wooden floors; each of these had two hard-used bunkbeds. I bunked in one of those tents, along with Matthew and Jen from Flamma Aeterna (the competition, I might say, if I were competitive). Matthew, Jen, and I in fact arranged to meet up at the Hartford airport and shared a car rental. We drove to the site, stopped at the greeter’s station and got the “welcome home” routine, and got the lay of the land. We discovered we’d want some kind of bedclothes for those bunkbeds, which had vinyl-covered mattresses. We drove back to a nearby Walmart, where I discovered to my surprise that it is possible to buy a $10 sleeping bag. Also bought some white gas to throw into the kitty, but lamp oil was nowhere to be found. Stopped at a neighboring grocery store to pick up some beer, and was somewhat surprised at the limited beer selection (many convenience stores in Austin have a better beer and wine selection)â€”they did have Guinness, though, so I managed.
Back at the campground, I got settled in, got a table set up in the vendor area, and started meeting people, a few of whom I had corresponded with online.
That night, and each night, there was an open burn on the main field. The organizers had set up a gigantic fire circle, and there were often ten people burning at once from about 8:00 PM until the DJs called it quits at 1:00 AM. There were three big bonfires going, which the spectators crowded around. The field was at a lower elevation than the rest of the camp, and right next to a creek. It wound up being cool (just a little chilly in shirtsleeves) and humid, with fog forming one night. The fire and fog made for quite a sight. A dubious pontoon bridge was the shortcut between the field and the kitchen area; one night as I was crossing it, my headlamp illuminated every droplet of mist as I walked forward, creating a visual effect remarkably like the “entering hyperspace” effect in Star Wars. It was one of those little moments in life that take on disproportionate profundity somehow. Thursday night, for whatever reason, I wasn’t connecting with the music, and didn’t spin much. Spent a lot of time serving as a spotter instead. Friday night I probably lit up ten times though.
Part of Saturday night was set aside for performance demos: people who have prepared shows were given an opportunity to demo them for all assembled. This was a real treat, with four sets: two hoopers; a double-staffer on stilts along with a poi spinner doing a clever puppeteer and puppet routine; a fire-eating and flesh-transfer solo routine; and an extended routine by the event organizer Chad and his performing partner Joanna, which variously involved hoops, fire fingers, single staff, and double staff (and which also had a puppeteer and puppet theme to it). All of these routines were a pleasure to watch, and it was one of the high points of the event.
Also on Saturday night, there was an attempt at the longest firebreathing “pass” ever, where a bunch of breathers line up, and attempt to pass a flame down the line. They got 30 people in line, but after repeated attempts could not pass the flame for more than five people.
Almost everybody at the event apparently was from the Eastern Seaboard, from somewhere between Washington DC and Boston. I only knew of four people, myself included, that came from a greater distance. Whenever firespinners from different regions get together, it’s interesting to observe the differences in style. A lot of these spinners had a very technical focus (falling on the tech side of the “tech vs flow” divide). There were a lot more people who use multiple tools, although this is perhaps to be expected in a self-selecting community of spinners dedicated enough to go to an event like Wildfire. A lot more double-staff spinners, but no baton twirlers. A lot more contact staff spinning. Only one meteor spinner. A lot of hoopers. There was a woman selling non-fire hoops in the vending room who borrowed someone else’s fire hoop for her first burn at Wildfire. And someone fire-hooping up on stilts, which drove her spotters crazy. Another difference was that hardly anybody used lamp oil, everyone used white gas.
Wildfire didn’t unlock any amazing tricks or techniques for me, but it was still worthwhile. Simply being in an environment where pretty much everybody shares a strong interest in firedancing was pretty special. And one concrete benefit I did bring home was an urge to get more serious about my own firedancing. I’d been goofing around with double staffs for years, but never practiced with them in a methodical way. I’ve started practicing with them every day. And I’ve been trying harder to kick myself off the plateau I’ve reached with poi.