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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.]

Dance


 

About The Author

Erica Buist

Erica is a journalist and comedian in London. She lived in Mexico for two years and is now fluent in Spanish. Coming to the end of a Journalism Masters at City University, Erica is always quietly planning the next big trip. She calls herself a travel writer, her loved ones call her a 'flight risk'

  • Tolahill

     I loved reading this post thank you Erica. I am slightly in awe of fire dancers (Burning Man) have you been? I look forward to reading more from you when and if you write it. Victoria, currently living in Cape Town, South Africa.

    • Ericabuist

      Thanks Victoria. I have never been to Burning Man sadly! In fact I had to surrender my fire equipment in a complicated house-move!
      I can see why you’d be in awe, it looks terribly impressive, but it’s really not that difficult. You could set fire to knitting needles and people would go “Ooh!” Just get someone to teach you the basic frie dancing moves and you’ll be amazed how fast you pick it up. And please post photos when you do! x

      • Deb Thompson

        Awesome article Erica!  I’m amazed at what you do, and love your writing style! Looking forward to more of your writing.  Hope you’ll come check out some of my travel writing when you are not busy twirling and leaping in the flames!

  • Matt L

    Great article. Awesome job Erica.

    • http://www.facebook.com/erica.buist Erica Buist

      Thank you Matt!

  • Charles

    Thanks, great article. I had the honor to meet the late Crimson Rose, fire dancer par excellance, at Burning Man in ’98 and ’99. She was an older lady but hot in every sense, and led the fire dance from the solar igniter down the Esplanade to the Man the night of the burn, an incredible performance. 

    Some of the Austin burners fire-danced, and there is a fire dance group here in San Antonio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BchnrgndUs

  • Carl

    That was really inspirational; thank you.  You write very lucidly but with a satisfying structure.  If I wasn’t a an inflexible, office-bound dude with hands as dextrous as cow’s tits I’d be tempted to take some lessons!

    As an aside, I actually went to Klute while interviewing at Durham, one wet night in 1998, and it was EXACTLY as you described it here.  I suppose that, once you’ve found your audience, there’s no reason to change the product.

  • Ophelia

    I really dug this tale, and adore the way you worded it!  I hope to read more of your adventures!

    • http://www.facebook.com/erica.buist Erica Buist

      Thanks Ophelia! x

  • Ann Murphy

    Great piece of writing although a drunken man calling me a fire slut would probably have resulted in him having the pole wrapped around his neck!  Would you be a fire slut if you were a man? Doubt it! 

    • http://www.facebook.com/erica.buist Erica Buist

      So true. But although they never spelled it out, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t much flexibility in the “Don’t attack the clients” rule. Sadly!

  • flyingknuckle

    I always wonder how people get into fire dancing/juggling. Met any other fire sluts on the road?

    • http://www.facebook.com/erica.buist Erica Buist

      A few, yes! I got into it through a friend, who was taught by some hippies at university. I learned 3 moves on New Years Eve, after three glasses of wine, with fire from the start! My mother HATED it. I think she thought it was unsafe and a waste of time. But I’ve performed on an island in Malawi, and while living in Cuernavaca, Mexico I performed in a club, a fashion show and in the city zocalo. Not a bad way to make a few bucks/quid/pesos/kwacha…

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