By Kelly Brooks
Photos by Erick Gibson
Surrounded by fire, your world becomes small, defined by a sphere of dancing flame. Your skin tingles as the fire’s heat passes close; your ears hear only the whoosh of air slapping back into the vacuum that trails behind the blaze. With senses buzzing and adrenaline pumping, you feel more alive, more primal than you did before the wicks were lit.
“I always get a rush when I’m spinning fire,” says Pam Howe. Her tool of choice is fire poi — two balls of fire that are each attached to a two-foot chain. She uses the chain to “fling the burning objects” in intricate patterns around her body.
“There’s no better way to feel alive than when there is an element of danger,” she says.
It’s that danger that entices and awes the audiences that flock to see Pyrophoric, Frederick’s local fire performance troupe. During a show featuring Howe and the group’s other seven performers, you’ll see fire breathers and dancers using a fire poi, a staff, fans, orbs, torches, umbrellas, swords and whips. A DJ, sword swallower, magician and the fire sculpture Cosmosis, a fantastical creation that shoots 20-foot flames into the air, complete the spectacle.
The name Pyrophoric references “a chemical that spontaneously ignites in the presence of air.” And, indeed, Pyrophoric’s members are eager to demonstrate their talents anytime and anywhere.
Fire holds a prominent place in many worldwide cultures. In Central America, the Aztecs performed a fire dance in worship of the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli. In the Pacific, Samoan warriors proved their prowess dancing with a fire knife, and in Bali, the fire dance is a trance ritual in which men dance around and through a fire.
In the United States, where fire dancing was once relegated to the realm of circus sideshows and baton twirlers, the art form can be seen today at street festivals, beach parties, festivals and rock concerts.
Pyrophoric has lit up such Frederick events as Fire & Ice and First Saturday downtown, Flying Dog’s Merry Firkin Christmas Freak Show, Independence Day in Baker Park and a host of private parties celebrating birthdays, holidays and weddings. The group has its sights set on Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for that town’s inaugural Steampunk festival in March.
Sue Kemp, the group’s founder and ringleader, recalls how she discovered fire poi in action at the Spoutwood Farm May Day Fairie Festival in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania in 2004. Although she was initially fascinated by fire poi, she waited several years before buying her first set of practice (nonflammable) poi. Once she did, she quickly learned that poi wasn’t the best tool for her. “I kept whacking myself in the face,” she says with a laugh. “I knew I didn’t want to hit myself in the face with anything on fire!” And with that thought in mind, she let her burning dream flicker out.
But seeing her first fire hula hooping performance rekindled the desire. “When I saw that, fire sparked within me, literally. The hoop [unlike poi] wasn’t winging all over the place like crazy, and I thought, ‘I can do that.’ I became an avid ‘hooper’ after that.”
Kemp made her own hoops and practiced for a full year before finally lighting up her theatrical moves in 2009. What’s it like to spin fire for the first time?
“It was one of those moments where you’re transformed completely by something you decided to experience in your life. Standing in fire, not everybody does that every day,” she says. “I felt natural in it. I craved it and enjoyed how it created a new type of dance and creativity for me. It gave me courage.”
Kemp now had the passion — and the gumption — to start her own business as a performer and instructor. Operating under the name “Soolah Hoops,” she teaches hooping for fun and fitness with Frederick County Parks and Recreation, Frederick Community College and the Ananda Shala yoga studio. She also leads the Shooting Diamond Hoopers, a local teen hoop troupe, and performs with Pyrophoric.
“Before, I was just regular like everybody else. After I started spinning fire, there was a shift in beginning to understand a deeper aspect of who I personally am, not for everybody else, but for me,” she says. The feeling Kemp describes sounds like a spiritual metamorphosis.
“You don’t see this type of performance every day,” Howe says. But for those who do, burnout is possible. Howe’s 10-year-old daughter Grace, for example, “finds it quite boring and is no longer impressed,” she laments.
“What’s a mom got to do to be cool anymore? Sheesh!”