Lady Ablaze – The Dazzling Subculture of Fire Spinning.

By Daniel Shkolnik / Photos courtesy LBS spinners

lady-blaze-7A woman’s hula-hoop was on fire. One man swung a flaming sword. Another flung a Chinese rope dart—also flaming. Ten wicked Dragon Staffs spun red circles through the night. Poi carved flaming clovers and infinity loops in the darkness. Some people breathed fire, others ate it. Someone wielded a whip that cracked out fireballs. One man with a steampunk top hat and an Aussie accent made (and ate) a continuous line of flaming jellyfish.

This is not a sneak peak at hell. This was the scene at the Northeast Fire and Arts Festival in Oxford, Connecticut this past spring.

To get a better sense of this hot and quickly-expanding subculture, I later met up with one of the dancers present at the festival, professional fire dancer, Lauren Beth Stein. Better known as LB, or by her stage name, Lady Blaze, Stein has been spinning fire for 12 years. Based in New Haven, she owns and performs under the auspices of LBSpinnerZ ArtZ.

What Stein and other “burners” do is known as fire performance, or more commonly, fire spinning or fire dancing. Fire performance has several ritualistic ancestors in various parts of the world such as the Polynesian islands, Mexico, and India’s Thar Desert. But since the ‘90s, there’s been a modern explosion of fire dance and dancers—albeit, with much closer ties to circus troupes than to ancient tribes.

The experimental ethos of this subculture goes something like a pyromaniac’s credo: things on fire are usually better. Fueled by that experimental mantra, the arsenal of props continues to grow.

Almost all modern fire manipulation is done with two basic components: wicks and camping fuel. The simple wick-and-fuel formula, combined with an experimental DIY spirit, has made it easy for fire to jump from one prop, weapon, or instrument to another. Ancient weapons like staffs, scimitars, and rope darts are super-charged with flame. Entire routines with hula-hoops, fans, flower sticks can be set ablaze. And many old or newly-invented variations such as GyroDOOPs—a hoop embedded with a flaming gyroscope—and puppyhammers—a Chinese “soft” weapon called the meteor hammer with Māori poi attached to the ends (no puppies involved).
But to call Stein a fire spinner and be done with it, wouldn’t do her career justice. Stein is a stilt walker, a puppeteer, an environmental educator, and—when she was on the Connecticut roller derby circuit from 2007 to about 2013—she skated with the CT Roller Girls as Pam TERROR!

jumpin-joe-2Now, Lady Blaze is her alter ego of choice, and her preferred crowd-pleaser is her five-wick, flaming hula-hoop. She can put this ring of fire through a retinue of on-and off-body tricks, smooth isolations, or various other eye-dazzling displays. She began hooping 18 years ago with a regular hula-hoop and began her performing career a few years later. She lit her hoop aflame in the mid-2000s after her friends saw a video online of a girl with a burning hula-hoop. They were impressed by the novelty of it, but not by the moves. “You’re better than her,” was her friends’ consensus, and they made Stein her first fire hoop. She’s been burning ever since.

Today, Stein performs with her partner, Joseph Paul Janicki, a.k.a. Jumpin’ Joe—a pro BMX biker turned fire spinner. When Janicki met Stein in 2011, sparks flew: they started dating; and not long after, Janicki’s high-flying BMX stunt bike caught fire. Intentionally, of course. Inspired by Stein, he affixed four flaming wicks onto his bike where the spokes would otherwise be and began performing with her.

Between the two of them, the pair has 9 tattoos, 27 piercings (25 of them on Stein), and some two-dozen fire props that they use in performances. Their arsenal includes fire fingers, fire fans, fire orb, levitation wand, regular and white lotus poi, flower and dragon sticks, contact sword, GyroDOOP, and many others. It took years of training to build up their skill set, and it takes hours of weekly practice to keep it kindled. And with the internet age, new moves and variations spread like wildfire across the net. “Even with the props you’re good at,” says Stein, “there are always new moves to learn.”

But even in this vast and fast subculture where new ideas catch on quickly, the duo may still be on the cutting edge with Janicki’s fire bike. As far as they—and I—can tell, Janicki’s flaming BMX bike is the only one of its kind. “Lots of my bike stunt friends have seen me do it, but they have no interest,” says Janicki. He says the element of fire is a barrier that has to be leapt. But once it is, the effect is fantastic—especially when Stein is lying on the ground and he’s hopping over her, the tires inches away from her face.

“People love it, they think it’s insane and that I’m going to kill her.”

Janicki has years of training as a professional stuntman and trial rider, so the illusion of risk is much greater than the reality of risk. But with the virtually of the duo’s tricks, there is a very real element of danger. Fire safety is important, and at all fire performances and festivals there’s at least one person standing by with a fire blanket. And even seasoned professionals have been known to have accidents—sometimes fatal. In other words: don’t try this at home.

But there are many who do want to try fire spinning—more and more all the time. Around Connecticut, the spinning community is growing fast. Stein says she used to know practically everyone who spun a fire hoop in Connecticut—and everyone knew her. Over the last three or four years the number has grown so fast, she can’t make that boast anymore. But if you’re spinning around the New Haven area, or want to learn how, Lady Blaze is still a name you want to know. Stein runs public “spin jams” for local spinners looking to learn or practice their craft, teaches hoop classes, and performs throughout the northeast.

Lady Blaze and Jumpin’ Joe regularly tour the circuit of local fire festivals such as NEFA and Wildfire as well as music festivals like Wormtown and Strange Creek. This year they traveled as far out as the Oxford Kinetics Festival in Ohio, and Playthink, a flow arts festival in Kentucky. And back in 2012, Stein went into Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to attend the mother—or rather, father—of all fire festivals: Burning Man.

lady-blaze-13Burning Man has become a sort of mecca of the fire spinning world. It takes place in Black Rock City, a sprawling settlement of tens of thousands of people that rises out of the desert for one week out of the year; and then when it’s over, disappears like it was never there. In this surreal boomtown, people ride around on Chinese pirate ships, build huge mechanical hyenas, and inhabit structures that look like alien Taj Mahals. It has its own tribes: “sparkle ponies,” “shirtcockers,” “yogabunnies,” and of course: fire spinners.
Stein brought her burning hoop skills to Burning Man in 2012; and for one week she camped out on “the playa”—nickname for the Black Rock Desert—fire dancing and watching elaborate wooden palaces and creatures burn to the ground.

“It’s extreme camping,” Stein says. “Very extreme camping.”

“I would go back,” she says, but Janicki’s in no hurry to go. “It’s a desert. It destroys your bike.” And with dust storms, day-night temperatures that fluctuate between 100 and 40 degrees, high costs, and a growing touristic quality to the festival, there are many fire spinners who aren’t jumping on their nearest steampunk-style dirigible headed for la playa.

Luckily, you don’t have to make a pilgrimage into the Nevada desert to catch a taste of the fire spinning culture. Keep an eye on the LBSpinnerZ ArtZ website and Lady Blaze’s Facebook page. Odds are you can catch this high-heat duo burning bright at a party, parade, or festival near you.

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