The (Cat) Club – On Fire!


A few weeks ago, this video showed up in my Google alerts for fire spinning. It’s not well lit, though it looks to me like the guy is spinning inside in front of a drum kit with a relatively low ceiling.

And then maybe a week later, this one showed up with the even more terrifyling looking drapes. I shiver to think of the potential damage an accidentally breaking or slipped tool might make hurled into one of those curtains.

As an artist, I can appreciate the desire to spin indoors. There is a certain intimacy a closed container creates you can’t have in the wide open space outside. People are generally closer and there’s an opportunity to look them in the eyes. It’s a wonderful experience for a performer … I daresay, barring some unexpected negative accident, the audience as well.

At the same time, mistakes can happen and there is no doubt in my mind a contained space presents some serious dangers. This one time back in 2004 or 2005, I went to see some friends of mine performing a fire show at the Cat Club in San Francisco. If you haven’t seen the inside, the space, at the time, was pretty tightly packed with chairs and tables on a wooden floor. The place is one of those long, thin bar-clubs with a small dance floor. The ceilings were ample, though not particularly high.

In San Francisco, permitting laws require that you have 15 feet from the front of your stage with a fixed barricade between you and your audience. I would guess I was sitting at about 20 feet back from them and there were 2 tables — with people at them — in front of me.

The performance area was small and quite close to the audience.

In retrospect, this setup is one I wouldn’t even be comfortable with in an open space. For one thing, the performance area was in front of a drum kit and band gear (lining the back wall), leaving only a few feet in front of the artist and no room to back away should a crown encroach. While there was a wide aisle down the center, there were tables on the side where people were sitting with no egress except the center aisle. This is a serious hazard if a flaming tool happened to break, accidentally slip or miss tossed into the side wall, up against which the audience was sitting stuck at tightly packed tables.

To everyone’s credit, the depot was outside the building behind the back entrance with the door closed from which they were entering the stage. If you need a depot, this is the best way to do indoor gigs especially (though we generally dip our tools and bag them so we can close the depot before performing).

I was sitting at the aisle and far enough back to have a near front row center view of the entire scene before me. My friends came out and did the first set and then came the changing of the tools.

This is where everything went wrong. They lit the poi and then, on the very first swing, fire came flying off the poi and white gas flew all over the side walls, floor and whatever furniture was around.

Mind you, this was only the spray from poi that had not been spun out, so it really wasn’t that much fuel. However, it was a truly scary experience to witness. Fortunately the performers and safety managed to get everything out more quickly than I could even get to the fire so in the end, it worked out OK. This time.

However, just because it worked out that time doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to spin in a small space with no ventilation and a crowd that’s too close and with no way to hold them back from the front of the stage. In San Francisco, the permitting laws for an outdoor performance include:

  • 25 feet from the open flame to the fuel depot
  • immovable barricade
  • a barricade 15 feet from the front of the stage

Maybe that seems conservative. I thought it was too until I started producing the Fire Dancing Expo and witnessed a crowd size large enough to make a distance like that appropriate in order to maximize safety and maintain an appropriate egress in the event of an actual emergency (say, an accidental miss-tossed or breaking tool).

I have also witnessed the predictable response of being a good artist: you continue to draw more people into the space. This then causes people to press up against the front of the stage and in the end, especially if there is no barrier, the audience moves in close enough to reduce the size of the performance area and make it less and less safe. Especially at parties where people are wearing synthetic creations that are more flammable.

There are very few venues in San Francisco that have an indoor space that would be able to get permitted. There’s a reason for that: most of them aren’t safe. We encourage you to keep it in the open, away from hazards (drapes, people, traffic, etc.), in well ventilated areas and outdoors. Help protect our art form by operating safely.

For more support growing your business as a performer, flowpreneur or instructor, consider our upcoming training classes: Building Your Business & Flow Instructor Training.

Written by Temple of Poi founder and visionary, GlitterGirl, who has been a full time flow arts coach and instructor since 2002. If you seek professional guidance associated with creating a safe performance, obtaining a permit in San Francisco or other personalized coaching, contact GlitterGirl directly for a free consultation (GlitterGirl <at> TempleOfPoi <daught> com).

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