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Thursday, Jan. 3, 2008

Playing With Fire

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Russian Wulfgar, Vegalum, Niacin, Banshee, Socky and Donnybrook: Though they sound like characters from a science-fiction novel, they’re actually a group of Milwaukeeans who are giving new meaning to the expression “playing with fire.” We’ve all seen flame-swallowers and fire-jugglers, but how often do you come across a woman nimbly spinning a hoop of flames about her waist or a man leaping through the air with a burning staff? And those are just some of the sights you may encounter at a performance by the SnowFire Spinners. You’ll also see them re-enacting the Maori art of Poi, where ropes with fist-sized balls of fire on the ends are spun through the air. Marilyn Besasie (Russian Wulfgar) recently sat down in Eric Griswold’s (Niacin) home/gallery, the BurningSNOW Center for the ExperiMENTALArts, to talk about her consuming passion.

How did you get into fire-spinning?

We saw it for the first time at the Burning Man festival; a giant fire-art and art festival near Reno, Nevada, they hold on Labor Day every year. Forty thousand people come to the middle of nowhere, the middle of a desert, where anyone who practices any kind of fire-art can come and do whatever they want because there’s no fear of blowing anything up. We went out there in 1997 and saw fire-dancing for the first time and I thought it was beautiful and dangerous and I wanted to learn it.

Why does it appeal to you?

It’s just very beautiful, and the element of danger is very intoxicating and energizing. You really get a sense of awareness about yourself. Because the first time you’re burned— and we all get burned—once you feel that fire hit you, it gives you such a sense of how you have to be aware of both being safe and making it look beautiful at the same time. That’s probably the most difficult thing about this.

How did the troupe get its name?

There are a lot of fire-spinning groups, mostly on the West Coast and East Coast; San Francisco had dozens and dozens of fire-spinning groups and a lot of them have fire in their name. But we wanted to differentiate ourselves from them. We thought, ‘We’re in Wisconsin. What is everyone from the East Coast and the West Coast going to think when they hear we’re from Wisconsin? They’re probably going to think about snow.’ So that’s how we came up with the name SnowFire. But we also have a spinoff group now called FireSiren—just an all-girl group of me and the two girls. Sometimes, you know, girls just want to spin by themselves.

You offer fire-dancing classes at UW-Milwaukee?

Yeah, we do teach fire dancing, once you get to that level, after you’ve learned non-fire spinning. Dancing with fire is just as dangerous as spinning fire, so safety comes first. The best thing about learning with us at UWM is that we’re so experienced that we can teach you more in six weeks than you can learn by yourself in six months.

Why should people learn?

Not only is it sexy and fun, but it appeals to a wide variety of people—dancers who like choreography, athletes who like a challenge, people who just want a fun new way to exercise. I know a lot of people who think of themselves as geeks who would never move their bodies in public, but once they wrap themselves in fire and can do this amazing thing, they suddenly find themselves very cool.

To find out more about the SnowFire Spinners, go to www.snowfirespinners.com. For information on fire-dancing at UWM, visit www.uwm.edu/studentorg/poiclub.

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