Generally speaking, I find life adequately challenging without inventing ways to put my mettle to the test. Although I admire marathon runners, people who get tattoos that require multiple visits to the parlor, and people who are “finally quitting coffee,” I feel no desire to follow their lead. I’m far more likely to avoid things I’m afraid of (fire being chief among them, but also bears and loneliness) than to confront them in an impressive feat of psychological strength. And yet, there I was last month at the Floasis, the Brooklyn studio and community center devoted to “flow and fire arts”—fire-eating, throwing, and dancing to the uninitiated—with a wet head of hair (for safety) and cotton pants (also for safety) for my first and probably only lesson in how to dance with fire.
The fire arts, broadly defined, consist of doing dance-like movements (that are much harder than they look) in a “flow state,” while holding something that’s been dipped in fuel and lit on fire. At the Floasis, people come to practice spinning metal fire fans, staffs, and “poi,” which are wicks on chains. Occasionally, the very advanced eat fire. I would be learning to use palm torches, little balls that sit in one’s palms with wicks attached. They are a beginner’s prop, which was perfect for me, a beginner.
My teacher was Tara Mc Manus, the “fire producer” and pyrotechnician who runs the studio and is positively devoted to safety. She’s trained the FDNY in how to monitor fire shows, has developed a licensing system for fire performers that’s now standard in New York, and has no patience for people who are cavalier about fire and explosives. Eyeing a recycling bag full of empty gas canisters, I assured Tara that I was not one of these people. Also at the studio that day was Nola Star, who would be my “safety,” in charge of making sure no one got hurt if I threw fire in the wrong direction; three cats with 11 legs between them, named Fizzcake, Kingsford (after the charcoal), and Iso (after the fuel Isopropyl); and a bunch of humans playing Dungeons & Dragons in the studio kitchen.
Tara described the people who come to the Floasis to practice flow arts as “the type of person able to set aside inhibitions.” Here are some of the ways I’ve been described in my life: “so scared of everything,” “startlingly inhibited,” and “a giant wuss.” I nodded along anyway. Tara didn’t so much assure me as state frankly that “the serious injuries are not from the flame,” but from inhaling fumes or fuel. Learning burn aftercare, she told me, is a significant part of becoming an expert at fire arts. I had not asked about burn aftercare.
She told me, though, that “control of destructive elements” is a major draw for many practitioners of flow arts. There’s a lot of overlap between the fire arts community and the kink community, according to Tara, who also told me that “almost everyone” who hangs out at the Floasis is polyamorous, tons of folks are nonbinary, and that it’s a welcoming place for neuroatypical people, including a lot of fire arts practitioners with Aspberger’s syndrome. In short, she told me, the Floasis and the art that happens there are sites both literal and psychological of great comfort and strength for “outsiders.” “Once a week,” Tara said, “someone comes here to cry on my shoulder about life.”
All this put me at ease, which I needed, since our first stop on my tour of the Floasis was the closet that contains all Tara’s equipment, most of which looked like it had been stolen from the set of “Game of Thrones,” a show I mostly do not watch because it’s too scary. Tara grabbed a few fans, some poi, and an armful of palm torches, and we headed downstairs to a subterranean space that mostly looked like a yoga or ballet studio. We would not be lighting up inside. First, I had to get into a “flow.”
A flow is not exactly dancing but it’s not exactly not. Tara put on some music I suspect is popular at festivals and demonstrated a few moves. Most of them involved moving my limbs in a controlled “isolation” around a stable center point, a beautiful metaphor for life and a very difficult thing to physically do, it turns out. The concept of planes is very important to the execution of these moves; one is in the front of the body, one slices the body in half length-wise, and one bisects the body through the middle. The trick is to move the palm torches along these planes in an artful way. I waved the unlit palm torches up and down, moved them in simultaneous clockwise and counterclockwise circles, and swept them across my chest, following Tara’s lead. She charitably told me I was on the right track, although the studio had mirrors, and I could see with my own eyes that I was not.
We’d planned to move outside as soon as I’d passed my crash course in getting into a flow, but it rained my first afternoon at the Floasis, so we had to call it quits early. I was relieved but pretended not to be.
There would be no getting around dancing with actual fire on my second day at the Floasis, though. Under a cloudless September sky and sporting a new hair style—recently dyed red by Nola, my safety from last time—Tara gave me a nearly hour-long lesson in fire safety in the Floasis’s back yard. Something I have in common with Tara is a nearly religious respect for safety; mine borders on the fanatical. So the presentation and Tara’s coaching on how to safely use a fire blanket, should anything get out of hand, impressed me more than when, a few minutes later, she lit her own palm torches by putting gas on her tongue, igniting it, and licking her wicks.
My own wicks dipped and lit—not by my tongue, I’m sorry to report—it was time to dance. The heat in palms alarmed and awed me. After all this talk about fire and how hot it is, I’d somehow forgotten that fire was, well, hot. Suddenly, I felt I’d grown additional arms, and my new arms had been tasked with looking cool and coordinated while in great danger of being burned right off. I could hear the flames dancing on the wicks. The air smelled like a barbecue, although I felt significantly more anxiety than I typically do at barbecues. But the feeling grew on me. The seriousness of holding fire in my palms kept me from thinking of much else. No one was closer to the fire than I was and in the three minutes I spent with my lit wicks, I found myself bargaining with it, vowing to stop leaning away from it if it promised not to burn me. I swirled my hands through the air and found that the faster and more confidently I moved, the more control I had over the fire. I told myself I would try to remember this insight later, for general use in life.
Then the wicks burned down. That was it. I was out of danger, but I was also no longer a fire queen. I’d held my greatest material fear in the palms of my hands and moved it with beauty and dynamism. I was certain it looked to those watching the way it had felt to me. Tara clapped and asked if I’d enjoy sitting on the “fire throne.”
There was nothing I’d enjoy more, for after all, I was the fire queen, and atop the fire throne was where I belonged.
When I reviewed the footage later, I found that I did not look regal. I looked like what I was: a person with wet hair who had inexplicably worn both gray pants and a gray shirt to work. I’d undergone no outward transformation, but I’d danced with fire, and who cares how good I was? I’d done what I thought I could not, and so often from the outside, that looks like nothing at all. “Footage looks good,” I emailed Jezebel’s video editor, Jennifer Perry. I opened a new tab and googled “bear safety training brooklyn.”