Schenectady County

Sparks fly at weekly gathering (with video)

“Who’s got a lighter?” The question rings out beneath the setting sun. It functions as a cue, a sig

“Who’s got a lighter?”

The question rings out beneath the setting sun. It functions as a cue, a sign that things are about to heat up.


Within moments, a small tin “fire pot” is aflame, fueled by an old wick soaked in kerosene, and set upon the brick tile. A young woman named Corey White wanders over and swings flammable balls attached to long, ropy cords through the blaze. They catch fire immediately, and White spins them through the air, behind her back, through her legs. She is graceful and athletic as she dances in front of the small audience at the amphitheater at the Corning Preserve in Albany, and the Hudson River shimmers darkly behind her. It’s a chilly, windy night, and the fire emits a welcome warmth.

White’s partner and longtime boyfriend, Chris Bailey, joins her. He is holding a staff. Both ends are lit. He twirls the staff, balances it on his shoulders, rolls it up his arm. They dance together for a few minutes, then rotate off the de facto stage and extinguish their props.

It’s 8:45 and the Spin Jam is just getting started.

The casual weekly event was founded a year ago by Bailey and White, Mayfield residents who are professional fire performers and belong to a four-person troupe called Shilly Shally Fire Arts. The meet-up is held every Tuesday and people begin arriving around 7 p.m. Last week they spent an hour and a half talking and warming up, and then, when darkness fell, the fire came out.

Dancing with fire

Fire spinning is a performance art, a blend of juggling and dance in which objects including hula hoops, poi — a Maori word for balls suspended from cords and used in performance — staffs, torches, rope darts, fans and swords, are manipulated while on fire.

“Fire is such a powerful thing,” Bailey said. “People are in awe of it.”

Bailey, 23, began spinning six years ago, and has since developed a name for himself in the international fire spinning community.

He said he first became interested in fire spinning through friends who were into electronic dance music and would wave glow sticks in the air while listening to it. Eventually, he found himself on a Web site called Home of Poi, where he read about the practice of lighting the poi on fire and dancing with it. “It seemed neat and I liked how it looked,” he said. He made himself some practice poi, using tennis balls and socks, and spun them for several months. Then, when he was comfortable, he incorporated fire.

White had never spun fire until four and a half years ago, when she met Bailey through a mutual friend and was drawn to him.

“My thought process was, ‘He is really cute. Is he single?’ ” said White, 24, who studies performance art at Goddard College in Vermont. “I was infatuated with him. I thought, ‘Who is this guy? He spins fire.’ We started hanging out. Every time we hung out, he would have things in his hand, and he would start spinning fire.”

White, a slim, cheerful woman who wore a T-shirt that said “Discover Spinfinity” and kept her long hair tucked in a red bandana, has a performance background.

She has studied dance — ballet, jazz, tap and lyrical dance. “I still dance, but in the form of fire dancing,” she said. “It’s taken on a whole new realm.” She said fire dancing “is more focused on expressive movement than technique. As soon as I started doing it, I noticed an improvement in my ability to connect with my body. I’m forced to move my body in ways I wouldn’t normally. We call it unlocking. You unlock movement you never knew you had. The more you spin, the easier it gets.”

“The actual practice of spinning is meditative,” Bailey said. “It can be very cardiovascular. It can be a workout. It’s a big stress relief.”

Bailey and White formed Shilly Shally Fire Arts about three years ago.

“We were spinning for fun,” recalled Bailey, who has an impish grin and long, strawberry blond dreadlocks. “Then we started looking for gigs, and it just came together. We’d do a small thing here, a small thing there.”

The two spent the winter on St. John in the Virgin Islands, where they performed a weekly show at the hotel they worked at. The experience, White said, gave them a lot of insight into how to make a living as fire spinners, which they’re attempting to do. They networked with wedding planners to get gigs. They learned the importance of diversifying with gigs, selling fire spinning supplies, teaching fire spinning classes and busking — performing in public spaces and soliciting money.

So far, things are working out.

“We’ve been able to pay our bills with fire,” White said. For instance, the two busked at Americade, the motorcycle show in Lake George earlier this month, and earned enough money to pay their rent.

Last week’s Spin Jam drew about 20 people.

Not all of them spun fire. Some were spectators, while others drummed, providing the spinners with rhythmic, percussive accompaniment.

The spinners took safety precautions. Before the spin jam started, White laid several blankets made of duvetyn, a flame-retardant, 100 percent cotton fabric, on the ground. Only two or three people spun at a time, to minimize risk, and the people who weren’t spinning were attentive. And the spinners began by swinging their props hard against the ground, to get the excess fuel off.

Even so, they are playing with fire.

For instance, there’s no trick to eating fire.

“It takes guts,” White said.

According to White, fire eaters should be careful not to inhale, or close their lips around the torch. She said that what happens when you put fire in your mouth is similar to what happens when a cup is placed over a candle — deprived of oxygen, the flame gets smaller. Often, fire eaters extinguish the torch in their mouths. When White eats fire, she uses a homemade torch — a piece of wire attached to a Kevlar wick. She said it’s important to stand as vertically as possible, “because the flame goes up,” and to breathe before you put the fire in your mouth.

White said she and Bailey have been fortunate in that they’ve never been seriously injured spinning fire. But they do pick up the occasional burn marks and scars.

“I practiced for a month before I used fire,” White recalled. “I had on jeans and a hoodie and it was tied around my face. I was scared. But once you start, all the fear goes right out the window. You become much more comfortable.”

Clifton Park resident Michael Stomp, 23, is a regular at the Spin Jam.

“I started coming about a year ago,” he said.

Stomp’s prop was a fire sword. He said he decided to learn how to spin fire after attending a festival where he met a spinner who used a fire sword. For a long time, he spun alone.

“I felt very aimless, and like I was doing it just for me,” he said. But then he learned about the Spin Jam. “You meet people, and you feel like you’re part of something.”

Drawn to the fire

Stomp said people are attracted to fire. “You light it up, and suddenly people come and watch,” he said. “People like the danger. They like the light.”

Candice Potrafka, 38, of East Greenbush, took fire spinning classes from White and Bailey about a year ago. A photographer, she met the couple at a magic show where her husband, magician Cory Haines, was performing. Up until then, she had never imagined spinning fire. But she was interested. “It looked really cool.”

Fire spinning isn’t easy, Potrafka said. “My left hand still doesn’t want to do what my mind tells it to do,” she said.

Troy resident Sarah Worden was visiting the Spin Jam for the first time. She said she began spinning a few years back, and usually does it alone. But she learned about the Spin Jam on the local blog All Over Albany, and decided to check it out. “This is a great way to bring fire into an urban context.”

When Bailey returned to the stage, he swung his poi so that it created unusual shapes, such as a burning wheel. He caught the balls in the crook of his arm, and then shot them into the air again, like a yo-yo. He was joined by Stomp, whose fire sword became a thin sliver of dancing flame. After a few minutes, they rotated out, and new people rotated in.

When the Spin Jam finally ended, it was right around midnight.

“Time just gets away from us while we’re out there,” White said.

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