“Does anyone know what lung fire is?”, Eugene Kozlenko bellowed to the crowd surrounding him. A few chuckles could be heard, but most people were silent. It was 10 PM on a January night, and we were cold.
“It’s pretty much what it sounds like”, Eugene continued. “And it’s a good reason not to try this at home!” A few more chuckles. Mostly, there was anticipation. Anticipation for what we had all come out for in the first place.
In a moment, Eugene’s friend and classmate Alex Davis would step into the center of the crowd with a lit torch, take a swig from a gas canister, and vaporize it through the torch, spewing a ten foot beam of fire into the freezing air.
That would be followed by another performer twisting, spinning, and rolling his flame-tipped staff around his body to pounding trip hop and trance. The audience was getting a little warmer– they were forgetting about the cold, but the performers’ art could be felt from the far side of spitting distance.
For the final act, five performers came out at once. Each one held two chains– one in their right hand, one in their left– and at the end of each two-foot chain was a monkey’s fist knot, dunked in oil, and presently lit on fire. The music started and each one started spinning the chains around their body– loops, figure eights, weaves, and every sort of fluid motion. Sometimes they would hit them with their feet to reverse their direction; others let the poi chains wrap around their arms– then quickly unwrapped them in the opposite direction.
“Alright”, I thought to myself as a piece of flaming wick shot off and landed inches from someone’s shoes. “I’m sold. I’ll come to college here.”
* * *
That show was done by the fire arts club at my university. Originally called Fire Hazard, the group’s name made the administration a little antsy, and we were made to change to the less litigious “Olin Fire Arts Club” (referred to by members as “OFAC!”). The club was a fantastic draw, often performing shows on and off-campus, and attracting many a student to enroll in the school’s engineering curriculum. It was while I was still a high-school senior that I saw this group for the first time, and it was that night that I decided I would learn how to spin poi as well.
Within a year, I had performed in the same show I was so inspired by, and it was a wonderful experience. I’d like to share what I learned.
To the great dismay of those lacking common sense, one does not start learning poi while it’s on fire. Instead, you start with an instrument decidedly less glorious: practice poi– which are balloons filled with rice at the toes-end of tube socks. To get them ready to use, tie off the ends of the socks and whip them in a circle until you can’t feel your arms. The sock should be stretched to at least a few feet long.
There are a few alternatives to the sock-and-sand-balloon practice poi. You might want to consider these too:
- Glow poi. This is the best investment I made in college (besides, uh, college). These are battery-powered light-up plastic balls with ropes and finger-holds. They are a cheap, entertaining, and less dangerous alternative to dunking rope in gas and lighting it on fire.
- Fire poi sans fire. If you know you’ll be practicing enough to one day burn, you can actually get real fire poi and just not light them until you’re ready. The downside is that these things are really heavy. Not only are they more tiring than lighter practice poi, but if you hit yourself, it’s like being hit with a baseball.
- Pre-made practice poi. While no one in Fire Hazard bought practice poi (we all made them from scratch), there are a number of practice poi that you can order online. These might be worth looking into too if you just want something to start with right away and don’t care about the cost.
After you have your practice poi, it’s time to start building up your repertoire of skills.
Learning the Moves
There are a number of moves basic moves that you should be comfortable with before lighting up. Everyone will have a different set of these, but you’ll want to be comfortable holding and transitioning between patterns like:
- 3-beat weave
- 5-beat weave
- Basic turns, wraps, and isolations
I very much recommend finding a mentor to help you when you’re starting. While it’s possible to find videos online teaching an enormous number of moves, learning from a person who can observe you and give useful feedback as you learn is incredibly helpful.
Like many skills that take physical coordination, learning poi is easier if you follow a few simple maxims:
- Five minutes every day is better than an hour once a week. For some reason, our brains quicker understand things we do a little bit many times than try and learn in one marathon session.
- If you can’t learn a move, sleep on it. Sometimes these moves are just not things you can get in a day. But I’ve found that after working on one for a while, if I come back the next day, I may have somehow mastered it in my sleep. Ridiculous, but I think many fire spinners can attest to that happening.
This is really all I have to offer. From there, you’re off to the races. Let me leave you with a video of some idiot kid backflipping off his garage while spinning poi. I would say I’d never do something like that, but it would be a lie if I told you I hadn’t tried to do poi while unicycling.
To each his own. Good luck in your fire arts endeavors!