Photo by zoutedrop

Fire and dancing, inch by inch, towards a plane ticket and a new life.

JIMMY POUTS WHEN HE PICKS UP the notes of paraffin in my clothes. He gets a stomp in his step. This happens every Tuesday and Thursday. He throws a small tantrum as I leave the house.

I’m going to fire dance outside Durham’s nightclubs.

It isn’t jealousy, or possessiveness, or because fire dancing is sexy. It isn’t because dancing through a paraffin mist is a fire hazard. It’s because I get paid £120 a week for it, and he knows I’ll exchange it for a plane ticket. A few days ago he heard me humming “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and he cried a man tear.

A few days ago he heard me humming “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and he cried a man tear.

It’s the last year of university. I’m leaving England, and him. “What are you going to do?” is a question thrown at final year students around ten times a day. It’s like being pelted with boiled sweets. Because “I don’t know” isn’t the right answer to that question. Neither is “I’ve lost my way, give me a minute to look at the map.” So to escape it, and my worried parents, and my dead friend, I’m moving to Mexico. Why not? At least if I seem lost there, I can smile and say “tourist.”

Klute was the second-worst nightclub in Europe at one time, but the first has since burned down. Klute is now worst by default, and really is disgusting. The carpet squelches and sticks to your shoes, soaked with years of spilled drinks. Sweat runs down the walls.

The people who go there love it. Not the way they love quality things, like butter chicken or photography. They love it in a post-modern ironic way. The same way they love Abba and the Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s fashionable to enjoy patently awful things. They say “Ya, oh my god, love it!” and glug cheap drinks. They are the most privileged students of Durham’s student body, yet somehow adore rolling about in this muggy dungeon of an establishment. They are mostly Oxford and Cambridge rejects. They don’t think having stables makes them wealthy.

They are bankers waiting to happen.

Those arriving at Klute are often alarmingly drunk, which helps. You have to stand on the squelchy carpet to queue at the bar. It feels like a slow trudge through a swamp of mouldy grapefruit. A certain level of drunkenness is necessary to call that ‘fun’.

Photo by ejmc

I only go inside to get paid. My patch is outside the door, where people queue. Bored, drunk Brits standing in line are less likely to smash bottles and argue with the bouncer if they have a distraction. That’s the theory, and that’s where I come in.

I shiver as I set up. I didn’t bring a sweater because I’m about to spend two hours within circles of flame. It’s my fire jacket and it’s time to put it on. I fill a small plastic container with paraffin and take the bags off the ends of a long, silver pole. The ends are ‘wicks,’ blocks of canvas black with soot. I submerge them in paraffin one by one, and watch the fuel rush into every crevice.

Poor, thirsty wicks.

Elbows poke into ribs, fingers point. Here comes the fire…

By this time, the people in line have started to notice my odd ritual. Elbows poke ribs, fingers point. Here comes the fire, I think. Then the amazement and clapping, then the questions, then the requests to light their cigarettes, then the heckling and outright abuse. Then their rubbish night at Klute and the greasy kebabs from Dirty Jane’s, to line their stomachs for the stinking hangover.

Thursday I perform the same ritual outside another club — Loveshack. It’s more upmarket than Klute, but then so is syphilis.

Loveshack has a sixties theme. People squat with their cocktails on benches inside camper vans reminiscent of Scooby-Doo. Crowds of friends totter on stiletto heels, waving their arms in the air singing “Loveshack, baby loveshack…” At first, they are happy enough to stand in line and anticipate the night ahead. The line winds around me in a giant circle as I prepare for the show.

Photo by the author

I balance the pole on my open palm. Drops of paraffin fall to form tiny puddles. I flick my Zippo, and hold it under the wicks until they ignite. I let the flames grow, inhaling the marvelous scent of burning fuel. I place my other palm on top, a pole sandwich between my hands. I pull my upper hand back with force and the pole spins, which sends a paraffin spray into the air. Huge balls of fire are released with a whoosh and the crowd gasps.

This is the best moment of the night. A flaming figure eight whirls around me and I am separate from the crowd. In here, amongst the flames, I can be alone. I can conjugate Spanish verbs. I can work on standup comedy segues.

Has anyone else, ever, been called a fire slut?

But flaming solitude doesn’t last. It’s never more than ten minutes before someone stumbles over with their arms outstretched. Do they think the flames are made of beer? Now I begin another show, called ‘Don’t Give Clients a Concussion.’

Drunk students try to walk in a straight line through the staging area like I’m a dancing hologram. Keep smiling, keep dancing, don’t let anyone wander into the path of fire, or worse, the heavy metal pole, which flies around at a blurring speed. Trying to save these people’s skulls, hair, clothes, and testicles from their own sozzled stumbling is the most tiring part of the job. It’s where I really earn that plane ticket.

Then come the heckles. “That’s easy!” yells a man who can barely stand straight, “I could do that!”

A few other men begin to sneer, and there is only one way to shut them up. I drop to my knees, and spin the fire over my head like a helicopter. I lean back on my knees until my back meets the floor. The flaming helicopter spins inches from my face — I am caught between a rock and a hot place. With a small thrust at the waist that silences the heckles, I throw the spinning pole into the air and flip myself upright in time to catch it.

After a pause, someone yells, “Fire slut!”

I smile to myself. Fire slut? Has anyone else, ever, been called a fire slut?

It doesn’t matter, I think. I spin around and around, deliberately losing my point of focus. The flames roar around my waist, through my legs, and over my head. They sing to me.

[Note: Matador editors selected this Community blog post for publication at the Network.]

Like this Article

Like Matador