by Kahunahula. There is absolutely nothing like getting into the flow with fire. Since I’m seeing more and more new faces I’m sharing a few things I’ve learned about fire hooping. I remember having tons of questions when I started, even after reading everything I could get my hands on. We’ll touch base on the fear of fire, equipment considerations, safety suggestions, and reiterate a few basics that have been posted previously on Hooping.org and elsewhere. My hope is even old timers will find something useful here. The intensity of the light. The tangible vortex of heat. That throaty fire-moving-through-air-white-noise-whoosh pulsing around your body. The smell of smoke and fuel with a hint of burnt hair. Playing with darkness and light, wind and air. I love fire hooping! I find it unique among my hooping experiences and while there are limits to the moves that I can safely translate from regular hooping to fire, I find the challenge interesting and the process of discovery intoxicating.
The one thing that freaks people out the most is the what-if-something-goes-wrong-and-i set-myself-on-fire issue. People always ask if I’ve been burned. Yep. Lots. I spin fire 2-3 times a week; the hair on my forearms has an eternally scorched crew cut (I personally prefer not to have my forearms covered). Particularly when working on new off-the-body moves, my forearms can get licked in flames. Sometimes this means a light burn, sometimes not. Every once in awhile my hand or shoulder gets a hot kiss, but really, that’s about it. I have an aloe burn gel that works really well; the burns heal quickly too. But the moral of the story is if you’re going to be playing with fire you will probably get burned at some point. It’s generally not that big of a deal – and there is a lot you can do to minimize the risk. The truth is I am far more irritated when my stuff reeks of fuel then when I get a little singed.
On some firehoops it’s the metal that is the real danger, rather than the flame. Remember the trick you learned as a kid of moving your finger quickly through a small flame on a lighter? Now remember touching the iron? It was the iron that left the mark. The best burn I ever got, now completely healed, was in the shape of the head of a screw. Watch those metal bits!
Most of us don’t have a whole lot of experience with moving an open flame prior to getting into fire hooping. A campfire or candle just sits there looking pretty. It’s nothing like half a dozen spokes of flaming death in your immediate vicinity, under your (sorta) control. Fire is powerful. Putting it in close proximity to your body is not something to be taken lightly. I’ve heard of some bad accidents in the fire community, particularly with poi getting wrapped around heads and limbs. Fortunately, a firehoop won’t entangle you like that.
I think it is important to build up a solid set of hooping skills before you light up a fire hoop for the first time. Fire hooping is technically more complex than normal hooping – you have all these pokey, hot things to deal with, often in low light conditions. It makes sense to build up a substantial familiarity with the hoop before taking that next step to fire up.
Once you’re ready to flame on though, you’ll need a firehoop that is the right diameter and weight for you. You want to be comfortable in it. That being said, I tend to like a slightly heavier hoop for the initial learning phase of fire hooping. Building muscle memory is easier with a little heft to work with. But, no doubt, a heavier hoop means it takes more out of you too. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself completely exhausted in the middle of your initial spins.
There is an increasing variety of fire hoops available: attached/detachable wicks, rigid/floppy spines, led/fire combo hoops, collapsable, doubles, etc. I suggest trying a few different types before committing to one. You can also make your own. Since I’m a better hooper than craftsman, I prefer to trust someone else’s skill in building a fire hoop. Plus, it’s cool to support the small businesses that hooping has created. The point is that you want a firehoop that is sturdy, balanced, and a good fit.
Next you have a few fuel options: white gas, lamp oil, kerosene, color additives, etc. I prefer a fuel mixture of 60/40 lamp oil to white gas. That way you get a bright, easy lighting, flame that will last. It is a little smokier and dimmer than just white gas, but i like to torque the hell out of my hoop and need that extra oil to keep the wicks burning longer. The one big downside with lamp oil is that it can make your spin area slippery. As for other options, I’m told that kerosene is super smoky; unfortunately, it seems to be one of the few fuel choices available around a good portion of the world. I generally stay away from the color additives that make your flame change color. My understanding is that the pretty blue flame you see is supplied by a chemical in bug spray. No thanks. I figure I’m exposing myself to enough toxins with the fuel mix already. For fuel storage, after many different container trials, an ammo can is my favorite solution. It is metal, big enough to dip comfortably in low light conditions, easy to carry, and sealed. Works great. You can get them in army surplus/used camping gear stores.
In addition to your firehoop and fuel, you’ll need some support gear. Over the years I’ve assembled a basic firekit which includes all that I need to spin fire. I use a yoga bag to carry my collapsable hoop and firekit. Inside, I use a medium-sized toiletry bag to protect my wicks and for the rest of the miscellany. Here is what is in my firekit:
Aloe burn gel
Knee pads (kneeling on rocky ground or cement hurts)
Safety pins (for those clothing items that just won’t cooperate)
Misc hoop supplies (extra tape, extra connectors, extra wicks)
Scissors (for trimming wicks)
Lighters (I can’t tell you how many times i’ve been surrounded by 20 spinners with no means of Lighting a fire)
And lastly it’s never a good idea to light up alone. The first time I lit up, I was very fortunate to have the support of a couple of top-notch firehoopers who graciously guided me through the process. It made all of the difference in my sense of safety and overall comfort level. Definitely have someone experienced walk you through your first few burns, if you can. If not have a safety friend present and alert in your corner.
When fire hooping the first few times, I suggest focusing on just familiarizing yourself with the unique environment, the weight of the hoop, the heat, the brightness, the smoke, the sound, etc. Take your time, waist hooping is enough. As you grow more comfortable with it, you can start exploring your normal range of movement, staying aware of the position of the wicks/spines in relation to your body. In my experience, most burns happen when i’m doing things off-the-body. If you ever get in trouble, the easiest thing to do is drop the hoop and step away. Also, you can always ask your safety to put your wicks out at any time for any reason.
Here’s a list of ten other safety suggestions you can do to maximize your enjoyment while minimizing your risk:
1) Make smart clothing choices: I know, the fun materials are all flammable. Natural fibers, like cotton or hemp, are always best. When ignited, they will burn in and of themselves instead of melting to your skin like synthetics. Not sure if what you are wearing is flammable? Snip off a piece and carefully light it over an ashtray or sink. It will be very clear whether you want that material burning next to, or melting into, your skin. But you still want to wear the shiny one? One solution is to sew an inner, safer layer under the synthetics, giving you a protective barrier. One clever suggestion I’ve heard is to use ironing board fabric as the underlying layer. Also, try spinning in your fancy clothing with your firehoop unlit before lighting up. Things snag, flowy bits get in the way, suddenly you don’t have the range of motion you are used to, etc. Better to figure this stuff out before you have burning wicks to deal with.
Skin is in. The natural stickiness of skin helps add that extra bit of control that is useful when hooping, in general, but is particularly helpful when spinning fire. Obviously, be comfortable, but the more skin you have available, the more (potential) control you have.
2) Protect your head: The way I hoop, my hair is just asking to be toast – and i simply don’t have enough to spare as it is. I almost always wear a hat. You can also wet down your hair, if you prefer, or tie it beneath a scarf. When with a hat, it’s a good idea to wait until the flames have died down a bit to do any tricks that bring the flame close to your face. I’ve scorched eyebrows and eyelashes a few times and partially singed eyelashes just look funny.
3) Designate a safe area for fuel: A tree. A rock. A curb. Keep all of your fuel there and don’t spin anywhere near this space. Make it a communal effort to keep the drunk idiot with the cigarette away.
4) Double check your hoop/spines/wicks before each spin: You should give your entire hoop a once over before you dip, paying particular attention to the spines/wicks. If the spines are the screw-in type, they can come loose. You should check the permanent spines, too: I’ve almost been brained by a not-so-permanently attached permanent spine that somehow came loose from a friend’s hoop. Also, any frayed strings of kevlar should be trimmed from the wicks. This prevents flaming bits from flying off. Fire marshals don’t like frayed wicks – I’m sure there is a good joke in there somewhere too. If you are using a collapsable firehoop with those plastic connector inserts, I suggest covering them with tape to keep them from snagging or scratching.
5) Use a safety: Hangups about using safeties abound, but it is just foolish not to have someone there to put you out if you are in trouble. Clothing can catch fire without you noticing it. Safeties should have duvetyn or a wet towel ready to go, and be watching your spin. Make sure anyone volunteering to safety actually knows what they are doing. If not, take the time to teach them “hands-on” how to do it correctly.
6) Let others know what is in your fuel mix: If you share your fuel with other people be sure to let them know if there is lamp oil (or anything other than white gas) in the mix before they dip. This is particularly true for other fire tools.
7) Spin off: Before lighting up give the hoop a few spins to spin off the excess fuel. I still routinely see fire hoops that have not been completely spun off. This results in a sputtering firey circle of death flying every which way which is dangerous and easily avoidable. Lightly shaking off a newly dipped wick over your dip can is not enough. My preferred way to spin off is to spin the hoop vertically over my outstretched hand a few revolutions, away from my body, avoiding the spray. The other way I’ve seen it done is to hold the hoop horizontally and whip it in a wide swath away from the body. You need to rotate the hoop and repeat until all wicks have been spun off. Either way, you need some space away from everything else for this.
8) Be aware of your surroundings: Do you really have enough space to firehoop safely? Is the ground even? Is it windy? Are there tree limbs in the way of that toss you can’t wait to try? Is that person actually trying to come up and dance with you right now? Weird things can and do happen. If you are spinning with others, all kinds of flaming tools can end up in your spinning space unexpectedly. It is also easy to get disoriented within the light, heat and sound of the fire. Always double check your clearance before attempting tosses. You may not be in the same space you thought you were in. To make matters worse, you can cause mayhem without knowing it. I finished a spin at a large fire gathering and noticed I was missing a wick. Checking with the safeties, I found out it had broken during my spin and had been launched a good thirty feet towards the crowd. Could have been bad. It was totally unforeseen and unnoticed until the end.
9) Once your spin is done, make sure your wicks are all out: I’ve seen several instances wherein spinners exiting the play/performance space don’t realize they still have a wick on fire. I’ve also seen other tools light up accidentally from wicks that looked like they were out. Wicks and spines are still hot, even when the flame is out. Let them cool down before redipping.
10) Give yourself time: Learning to play with fire takes practice. You may feel very limited in what you feel safe doing for quite awhile. The more you practice, lit and unlit, the more comfortable you will become.
I also thoroughly recommend stepping outside of the hoop-blinders to spin with other people using other fire tools (poi, staff, fans, etc.). you will learn an incredible amount from the greater fire community. Here is some good fire safety information from Temple of Poi.
Other than that, have fun with it. There is no space quite like the magical vortex within a spinning fire hoop. Playing with fire has it’s challenges, but preparation, skill, awareness and common sense go a long way in making it safer than it looks. Treat the fire with respect and you should be fine.
Feel free to contribute your wisdom or feedback.
I’ll see you in the circle.