Dancing with fire a guiding light for one man’s connection to culture

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It’s often seen as an ostentatious circus act, best left to those who are as daring as they are dexterous.But for Hale Wilson, the art of fire spinning honours his culture and family history at the same time as looking cool.The New Zealand-born Samoan has carried his Samoan fire knife to Auckland, Brisbane and Darwin — and to the beachfront at the popular Mindil Markets where he’s about to make his debut.”This is what we call a ‘nifo oti’, which translates to ‘teeth of death’,” he said as he unsheathed the double-bladed staff from the towel it was wrapped in.The instrument has intimidating blades at both ends, and an equally intimidating history to match.”It’s actually originally used for a weapon, but that was hundreds of years ago,” Mr Wilson said.”We use it as a tool to dance with, to entertain and to showcase our skill with the blade, the danger, and the fire — everything all in one, through dance.” The fire spinners at the markets sit in a semi-circle amid bottles of kerosene and empty receptacles to dip their staffs into; some moved fluidly through flames as waves lapped the shore. Photo:
The Samoan fire knife was traditionally used by warriors before battle. Photo:
The performance is filled with meaning for Hale Wilson. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)

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There are cheers from the crowd as Mr Wilson sets about his routine. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)

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The New Zealand-born fire spinner has been hanging out with the local fire twirling community. Photo:
Mindil Beach’s markets — and its colourful sunsets — regularly draw crowds in the hundreds. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
He was eventually taught how to use the device by his mother, whose skills were passed on from her parents.”Some of the girls and the ladies — you’ll be shocked when you see them perform,” Mr Wilson said.”I thought maybe I’d like to learn it because I like the challenge and I want to be on the stage and hear the crowd clapping for me.” Many cuts and burns later, he began performing for functions and school fairs.”I’ve carried that on and I’m trying to bring this to Darwin.”The Mindil Beach foreshore is not quite a world stage, but in some ways it can feel like the world is watching.According to 2016 census data, nearly 40 per cent of Darwin’s population was born overseas.Nowhere is this more evident than in the city’s markets, where scents and stallholders from any number of countries come to co-mingle. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)

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The groups of fire spinners are a regular feature of the Mindil Beach markets at sundown. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
Mr Wilson chooses to blend in with casual wear rather than traditional Samoan dress, but he said the audience would witness a side of fire spinning from him they probably hadn’t seen before.”When you see me perform, you’ll see my motions and my movements are a bit more aggressive.”My one’s more like a war dance showcasing the strength of the warrior and the speed and the danger.”There were cheers from throngs of onlookers as Mr Wilson lit the staff and began a routine of fast, fierce movements, in part because his favoured petrol is highly flammable.Although the onlookers may not have realised, the performance was filled with meaning for Mr Wilson.His parents migrated to New Zealand for the opportunities that country provided, and he watched his uncles perform from a young age. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
Mr Wilson said relocating to the steamy northern city could pose difficulties — starting with the hot wall of humid air that greeted people as they stepped off the plane.”I thought Samoa was hot, and I’m still trying to adapt to the weather here,” he said.”That was the first thing that got me, just how hot it was here.” Having grown up in a close-knit family of seven brothers, Mr Wilson said being so removed from his family was also initially hard.Eventually, he was invited to jam sessions with a local file twirling group and found in the community a valuable way to express his Samoan culture.”It’s something with a lot of history and I always take it with me to wherever I’m staying at the time.”
What it's like to be a fire spinner
ABC Radio Darwin

By Jesse Thompson and Georgia Hitch

Posted

May 06, 2018 07:30:26

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Hale Wilson first picked up a Samoan fire knife at age seven. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)