Playing with Fire and Flow
Maciej Mrotek recalls mopping up after a structural fire as an 18-year old firefighter. While on the hose, dousing flames, his headlamp kept going in and out. A fellow firefighter was chopping at the ceiling ahead. Each time Mrotek’s failing lamp gave way to darkness “the embers were a falling shower. It was gorgeous.”
Soon after, Motrek, who is also a videographer, filmed a couple fire dancing at a Rainbow Gathering. (Rainbow Gatherings are temporary, countercultural communities.) Motrek had never seen fire dance like that before. “This was good fire dancing. It absolutely blew my mind. I was almost speechless. It inspired me.”
Fire dance is one of the flow arts, body-movement disciplines in which artists explore kinetic play. Some also call them circus arts. Whatever these artists call it, they’re in it; it’s a full-on lifestyle.
A common response is “I wanna do that!” The pursuit of skills, intensive training and the high associated with being “in” the body—inhabiting it beautifully, joyfully, sensually and in a state of flow—is addictive. In the tightly knit flow arts community, artists share and teach one another through YouTube videos, workshops and festivals.
For centuries, Polynesians used fire dancing as a form of training for battle or hunting, and eventually, for storytelling. Stateside, it exploded in the nineties, with the advent of subterranean raves, beach parties, festivals and the many offspring of Burning Man.
Curious, driven and playful, fire dancers have moved beyond using the traditional bow staff and poi (long flaming sticks and fire balls on tethers) that the Polynesians used to twirl images and stories into the night. These days, one might witness 30-foot fire launchers, flaming hula-hoops and elaborate headdresses and costumes set aflame.
Between the allures of fire and filming, it’s easy to imagine the tug that the dance exerted upon Motrek. “The destruction [of fire] is terrifying and horrible,” he says, “But when you’re able to harness its non-violent, non-destructive aspects, it’s beautiful. Putting them out was fun, but you couldn’t really play with them.”
Motrek built his own first bow staff and filled his free time by practicing on a beach in Florida. He formed a drum circle that gathered there regularly; he got noticed. His first official performance was the opening party for the Juggling Wing at the Ringling Brothers Mansion. That was 12 years and perhaps 400 performances ago. “In the circus arts community, you get hooked!” he enthuses.
Today, Motrek’s troupe, Dance of the Sacred Fire (DSF) has grown into a loose collective of performers. Known throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, DSF performs all over Colorado. The Aspen Skiing Company has retained DSF for about 40 performances over the years. DSF has headlined several of Carbondale’s First Fridays, and they will perform their eighth Mountain Fair this year.
“When I first started doing this, I was happy with five people,” says Motrek. “As I got more into it, I needed more people. It turns out, if you want to be in front of a lot of people, you need to be an organized business. Now we can play in front of 5,000 people. My mom was self-employed. I have a business sense. The income gives me the opportunity to perform in front of all these people and it gives me the ability to develop flame throwers.”
Motrek is now 32, and knowing the business aspects of fire dance position him as a go-to consultant. This brings him more income and allows him to explore and push further, upping the danger and need for safety measures. Because Motrek has strong ties with fire authorities and has mastered the permitting process, he often marshals fire dances at festivals such as Telluride’s Fire Festival or Costa Rica’s Envision Fest.
At times like these, other dancers, such as Dominic Turtle, a younger fire dancer who hails from Paonia, step in to take the lead for local performances.
Turtle, who is 26, has been with DSF for two years. Flow arts and fire dance infuse his being. He doesn’t stop moving or playing. During the interview Roaring Fork Lifestyle did with him and Motrek, Turtle continually floated a two-inch rubber ball between his fingertips, palm and the top of his hand, moving it in a hypnotic manner that seemed to defy physics and logic.
Claiming to have a passion for flow arts, Turtle says he lives to share that experience with others. “People see me juggle and they say ‘I could never do that!’” He shoots back, “Yes, you can! Let me show you how!” In 2015, Turtle opened The Lonely Toy Shop in Grand Junction. The shop sponsors clubs associated with various flow arts—yo-yoing, juggling—where people learn and practice together. Turtle’s shop will be vending at festivals all over Colorado and he plans to staff an interactive booth. “You don’t have to be buying to engage,” he says. “We’ll have performances and workshops. We’ll be a portal to move people past ‘I could never do that!’”
Given the allure of flow, the mystique of the exotic and the community of beautiful, fit people it attracts, it’s easy to romanticize the lifestyle. Says Turtle, “It requires a very honest evaluation with where you’re at and what you want to do with it. To have the tenacity to endure the process—the pain, the struggle that comes along with following your passion… those things don’t come along with significant monetary gain. Do you have the discipline to keep at it? Because there are going to be times it doesn’t seem like it’s working. Fire dancing is a go-getter kind of job. Some people do Las Vegas or earn a lot busking. Others travel around teaching workshops. It’s not easy.”
Adds Motrek, “It’s not like climbers—Monster [beverages] isn’t sponsoring us!”
Fire dancing performances are sometimes choreographed, sometimes a spontaneous response to music. Once a dance is memorized and performed over and over, does it get old? Is it hard to stay inspired?
Turtle leans in, excited at this question. “That’s the whole other art, the performing! You get the opportunity to play with people and have interpersonal communication with your body. You get a lot of the same situations, so you can experiment: What happens when you do this? Or this? You try not to drop your props, but you do. It’s an opportunity to creatively pick it up, or make eye contact with someone. There’s always a way that you can challenge yourself!”
Turtle has started cyr wheel (Google it!) and Motrek dreams of directing around the world.
Ride their vibe at Dance of the Sacred Fire’s Mountain Fair performance this summer. It will take place on July 30, at the main stage at dusk. Be sure to sit on a front row patch of grass because when darkness falls, fantasy and excitement fire up. Flaming balls rip flowers, arcs and infinity through the veil of black. Pyro towers sear the stars, illuminating the enthralling pleasures of flow.
Bring on the night!