Burn, baby, burn: An interview with a professional fire-eater

Photo courtesy of www.icfire.org

“Let me tell you, we make for a really fun bachelor party compared to something typical like a stripper,” says Jodie Smalley, performer and general manager for the Incendiary Circus. “Especially when we do something like light the bachelor’s tongue on fire for a second.”

“Wow,” I say. “That is driving me even further away from the idea of ever getting married.”

“If it’s a hot chick doing it, does that count?” Smalley asks.

The Incendiary Circus has been “Utah’s premier professional fire and performance art entertainment group” since 2003. While pyromania is generally frowned upon by your parents, teachers and local firefighters, the gutsy men and women of the Incendiary Circus feel right at home flailing conflagrant staffs and chains dangerously close to their persons. Some of them even breathe fire. And you thought you were super cool with that namby-pamby little cigarette hanging off your lower lip.

We caught up with Jodie Smalley, who performs under the name Reala, and got the lowdown on all things pyromaniacal. Turns out fire-eating doesn’t cause blisters. Turns out you can still get proper health insurance, even if your weekend gig carries a legitimate risk of second-degree burns. Learn more below. And, to all you buffoons reading this week’s issue: Do not try this at home.

What inspired you to start playing with fire in the first place?

A lot of us saw it at places like Burning Man, so we were inspired by that. We have our own little Burning Man Festival here in Utah and we wanted to have our own fire performance group.

Is it a smaller Burning Man affiliated with the Burning Man in the Black Rose Desert, or is it a Burning Man type of experience here in Utah?

They’re encouraged by the Burning Man organization, and they’re called “regionals”. The website for Burning Man has all the information

about it. But yeah, we were having our regional and we thought, “Man, it’d be cool to have fire performers and I want to learn how to do it”, so we all started practicing together, and realized that we were interested in performing for events, for things like art gallery openings, just little things like that. So we organized it into a business.

How long does one typically train before they’re ready to perform?

It really depends on the person. We have some people who will practice every spare moment that they have. [It depends on] amount of training and practice you put in. Also, we do highly encourage that you undergo fire safety training – what do you do if you catch yourself on fire, or drop your fire tool or if the fuel can gets tipped over – things like that.  We have actual fire-safety people who attend, especially when we’re performing in public. There’s an etiquette also, for the performers. You could be the best performer in the world, but if you don’t know anything about fire safety, we won’t let you perform.

What are some of the greater dangers that you’re dealing with?

The fuel that’s being used. We have dip stations where all the fuel is kept, and so making sure that it’s out of reach of any kind of open flame. Making sure that your tools are safe, that they don’t cause any kind of potential injury to yourself or to the audience. Of course, making sure that the performer has proper clothing on. Wearing a big, flowing silk outfit is not a good idea. Tight-fitting, heavy-duty canvas or leather is definitely preferable to a lightweight, nylon coat.
Burning yourself happens sometimes. Mostly we’re concerned with the audience and whatever location we’re performing at, especially indoors. All of our performers are insured…

That was actually going to be one of my questions.

If you’re performing in public it is a requirement actually, if you’re ever getting a permit or anything that you be insured. The fire marshals require it.

How does fire-eating or fire-breathing affect your insurance premiums? Does constantly putting flaming objects in or around your mouth require you to pay extra?

You know, actually, they’re just amazed at the idea of it and they don’t know enough about it to make it an issue. But, most of the time they don’t ever ask and I don’t tell. The biggest concern would be a burn, which, when you get the proper training, rarely happens beyond a first-degree burn or some singed hair.
I think the worst burn I ever got was from a gas fireplace that poofed in my face.

What about other injuries you’ve seen, either on yourself or on someone else?

Let’s see…the metal part of my fire tool got super hot and it kind of wrapped around my arm. It kind of branded it actually. That was probably the worst I’ve had [while performing]. I remember one guy had a sarong tied around his waist and it caught on fire. The fire safety people were trying to tell him to put it out, but he kept spinning the fire toy. He was so distracted that they couldn’t get on him. They had yell “STOP! HOLD STILL!” Then he realized what he was doing and he stopped and they were able to get to him. That comes with training – knowing when to stop. And he was relatively new at it. He got a pretty good second-degree burn on his leg.

What are your specialties?

I do fire-eating, fire-breathing, poi, staff, double-staff, fingers. I have a fire sword. And I’m learning fire whip – it’s like a bullwhip made from Kevlar.

What are fingers?

Fingers are kind of like fans. They’re basically gloves and at the end of each finger there is a rod.

So, a lot more self-explanatory than I thought.

Yeah. People always say “Wow, you look like Freddy Kreuger!”. You definitely need to have a good performance presence to make those work, instead of skill, like with poi.

What are the physical side effects to eating and breathing fire, if any?

With fire eating, not really. Lips sometimes get burned if you’re trying to do it outside and the wind blows the wrong way. It can cause a burn on your lip. Sometimes, it burns your nose hairs, which is always great-smelling afterwards. You get the soot in your mouth and if you swallow it, you’ll keep tasting fuel for the rest of the night. But you don’t want to inhale – that’s the hardest thing. If you breathe in the fire while fire-eating, that damages your lungs. So you definitely have to learn your breathing technique. That’s the biggest risk you can run with it.
With fire-breathing, if you can light it with a match – like if you have a pool of fuel and you can light it with a match – then you don’t want to fire-breathe with it. Because if you get covered in that fuel and your ignition source catches you, you’re in the burn unit. We use a petrol oil, an ultra-pure petrol oil. Anything that you spill on the ground and cannot light on contact is preferable. I prefer not telling people what we use for fuel specifically, because you never know what idiot is going to try it out in the backyard.

How exactly does fire-eating work? I see this and I think to myself that the performers must have the most calloused mouths on the planet.

No, I can still taste my food. It’s actually all breath control. So basically you’re extinguishing it with your exhaled breath. That’s mostly carbon monoxide, so you’re cutting off the oxygen flow. You’re cupping your mouth around [the flame], but it’s kind of like blowing out a candle, how you cup your hand around it and then blow it out. It’s kind of the same thing. Your mouth is cupped around it and then you exhale and that huffs it out, because there’s no oxygen. We’re not actually completely closing our mouths on it. It’s all breath control – especially making sure you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, because then you don’t run the risk of inhaling the fuel and the flame.

For more information or for booking, visit www.icfire.org

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