FireDrums: The Evolution of a Festival, Part I

Posted on May 31, 2014 by

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It’s Saturday night at what has been one of my favorite festivals, FireDrums. It is (consistently from my perspective) the peak of the experience where the community assembles en masse after days of connection, learning, sharing, soaking in knowledge and forging friendships… when people come together and share that energy in the circle with the fire. Barriers are broken and artists, new and old, stand side by side playing with the flow, props, fire and each other to create the magic that is Saturday Night.

2004 was the year of the first event, yet so many more people in the community started spinning after 2010, so I thought I’d take some time to commemorate and share my own experiences over the years so others may also understand the transformation the festival has undergone from a pot-luck style gathering of 35 to a multinational festival donning vending areas and food trucks. This is Part I of the 2 part series, covering 2004-2007 where Part II will cover 2008 onward.

FireDrums 1The first year, we met on Pismo Beach, complete with little shade, tides that got vehicles stuck, sound restrictions on our drums while haunted all night by the sounds of ATV vehicles whose whirs continued to echo in the sunrise hours well past our 11 PM sound curfew. The surface, a soft sand, was stable in the one spot we managed to get our plywood situated, an 8 foot square stage we labored to transport down from San Francisco on our little caravan. My own drive was pretty adventurous, traveling in the art car limo shown here in which I had invested.

Perhaps there were 35 attendees at the event — a far cry from a festival at the time. It may have only been 35, but back then, that was a surprisingly large number of fire dancers to have in one place. Remember there weren’t many of the forums people rely so heavily on today, artists couldn’t really learn well off the internet and the number of people doing it in the world was dramatically lower. Even in San Francisco, arguably one of the largest communities in the America’s, there was still a very small population of spinners, even with the then hundreds of Temple of Poi students who were playing.

Sky - FireDrums FounderFirst and foremost, the credit for gathering people toward this moment that sparked a decade plus of subsequent events, is Sky Anderson. Sky had a vision, and the patience and persistence to follow through to bring it to life. He organized people for months with far more rudimentary communication tools by current standards which have most of us able to call up anything from anywhere on our own mobile device. He marshaled resources, found a location, declared the gathering, invited us all, and like that guy at the airport who guides in the planes, shepherded us through the tide issues and over the sands to our beloved first Fire Drums. I recall standing with him at a point later, marveling at the accomplishment and wondering if somehow it might be similar to the early days for the Burning Man founders.

Chad Bennett came across the country to join us, leaving inspired enough to want to start WildFireNick Woolsey came from Canada to join us for his most recent trip to the states. Sky enrolled folks up and down the coast, including not only fire dancers, but drummers as well. Reid DeFever was an undeniable mainstay of the early years, who seemed from my vantage point as a fire dancer, to more or less be the organizer of the drum circle at night to which we danced. I’m not much into drumming but even with my preferences, I found myself transformed more than once through fire dances to the tribal beats when he was in the circle.

To appreciate just how amazing Sky’s accomplishment was, you have to also understand the way the world operated in 2004. It’s easy to forget that a decade ago not everyone had a cell phone, and no one had a smart phone. The internet, still less than 10 years young from the explosion of Netscape, was still in it’s infancy and YouTube and Facebook didn’t exist. Back then, we communicated on Tribe.net, a dramatically different forum though not necessarily less effective and certainly a leader in it’s day.

Back when Sky First created FireDrums it’s my perception it was about the community having a way to share ideas. Not only were we missing the commonly used on line forums that we enjoy today (which is in no way meant to diminish the niche forums that existed then like Poi in the Park as well as Home of Poi and others) to share ideas, stay connected and grown the industry, back then, shooting video was incredibly challenging. Even if you could shoot footage, you were shooting it on tape, so you then needed to know someone who had a computer and the software and the know how to edit the footage. In fact, in a sense, back then, fire dancing footage was like a Unicorn: you’d heard of them and people talked about them existing lots, but you never really saw it.

That’s something of an exaggeration, but in truth, only a minor one. To give you a sense of what I mean, here’s some footage I unearthed from a dress rehearsal back in 2004 which I was so excited about (back then) because it was recorded with my super awesome high-end home-consumer camera market with night vision. A crappy cell phone today get’s better footage. But back then, you had to use tapes you connected to your (much slower!) computer and then if you were really, really hip, you invested in an Apple Powerbook G4 fully installed with the iLife suite and the first generation of iMovie — the first home market laptop to come complete with video editing software at purchase. It’s staggering considering the growth of technology because anyone with a smart phone has that capability in a portable device today for $100 or less where it was thousands of dollars to create the equivalent back then ($4800 for my set up).

I go through this long explanation so you can truly appreciate how different things really are. And it’s not just the footage or the internet communication — it’s simple things like figuring how to meet up with your friends when you don’t have Google maps and people are traveling from multiple countries. Where people didn’t necessarily have a cell phone. Where you really couldn’t communicate instantly.

Sky did an amazing job communicating with people from all over the globe, getting us all excited about the idea of showing up at this beach in Southern California so we could share ideas and getting us to follow through and make it happen. People chipped in and paid for the space rentals and everyone brought something to share, from food to drums to skills and always smiles and a sense of wonder at all these people gathered in one place to share our love for fire dancing.

Roger Lai, Godfather of PoiAlthough most of the people present were Burners and fire dancing is prevalent in Black Rock City, this was the first time we were gathering around our love of fire dancing specifically. It was thrilling to share the stage with other artists. Most of the people mid twenties and older; I was in my early 30’s. It was amazing to see the 15 year old Rhymo walked out into the circle with his powerful and fearless youthful mastery, a sight equally as inspiring as Forest’s, far more professional and experienced under the leg movements. We took turns on the “stage”, applauded each other, argued with the park rangers when they came by to shut us down for drumming after 11 even when the ATVs literally ran all night long. We did what we could to appreciate the awesomeness of being together. While the visual evidence is low quality by today’s standards, it’s still magical today including the man I credit with really popularizing wall plane weaves and waist wraps in the early 2002-2004 time frame, Roger Lai.

Roger, who I vaguely recall being called the “Godfather of Poi,” was our real live Facebook back then. He somehow managed to connect people and he was a sort of International Missionary of Flow. He captured more footage than anyone else in that era, at least in the Bay Area. He would travel intercontinentally sharing ideas between different cities and groups of artists. No doubt, he’s one of the big people to thank in the earliest years of FireDrums — not just for Fire Drums, but for sparking the intercontinental interconnectivity this community knows today.

The second year was at Red White & Blue beach in Santa Cruz, a location that had a 2 year run and was quickly too small by the end of the second year.

Matt & Khan, Firedrums 05I’ve read other’s recount on line their own love of FireDrums 05. To this day, it is my favorite. For one thing, the venue was excellent. There were some trees by the water and there was beach. Shade, sunshine and water. Next, the event was small enough to really be personal. The circle was big enough to have 3-5 people spin in it at once, but small enough that you could see the whites of just about everyone’s eyes across the circle. I had more alchemical moments at that one festival than any other, a diversion you can read about in this bulleted list, or else, just skip down to below the bulleted list.

  • There was a strong contingent of Temple of Poi students present that year — recent Emcee of the Expo, Matt Freedman & Flowshow founder, Khan Wong, pictured to the left performed together; Artist extraordinaire, Aileen Lawlor; DnA, Pixie, Euni and others. I camped with Sparky who, at the time, was teaching the majority of classes at Temple of Poi.
  • I met Mushashii who I had previously met on line who met me with fairness and humanity that inspired me to become a better person.
  • I got to watch Andy House spin fire, something he truly rarely does. For those who don’t know, he was the, winner of the Circle of Lights 5 COL5 Video Compilation joined us.
  • I met Liz Campanella Breen, original organizer of the Chicago Full Moon Jam as well as a  member of multiple fire troupes in Chicago, including Pyrotechniq, with whom I performed in the Bahamas in 2009.
  • Burning Dan, Flow Temple founder, a protege and a man I’m honored to have called friend was there and we shared time and space, enjoying his fun costumes.
  • I danced briefly with Srikanta Barefoot in the fire circle
  • Images of that moment and many others were captures by Waldemar Horwat, who was really diving more deeply into the fire photography he’d picked up only a year or two earlier. Waldemar’s photos would become an amazing contribution to the community as he printed album upon album of fire photos he left out for everyone to enjoy in the communal eating area.
  • I met Memory in the circle while spinning fire, a moment that would spark a friendship spanning a decade this night.
  • Sean and Prisna brought their amazing selves to the event and I think even spun fire, something increasingly rare in our FlowToys innovators.
  • GlitterGirl & Srikanta Barefoot, FireDrums 05At the time, I was somewhat tender over the recent shit storm of negative reaction on the Home Of Poi Forum from the November 2004 SF Weekly Feature, Poi oh Poi!,  about me and Temple of Poi. Feeling somewhat shy, coupled with recurring tendonitis issues in my arms, I decided not to spin fire until Saturday night and only use lightweight poi the rest of the weekend. At the time, I didn’t really use other tools. By the time I got into the fire circle for the first time, it was a little after 10 on Saturday night. Through some strange twist of fate, I ended up in the fire circle by myself, something that had been rare all night. In that moment, with all eyes on me and all the energy of my students appreciating me, my mentor rooting me on and the liberation that came from finally stepping into the fire circle for the first time, I exploded and shed months of challenge as I fell into the flow and connected with the fire in a way I’d never experienced before. Suddenly, it became another dance partner with which to play and I had what was for me, a pivotal and epic shift internally as related to my practice and especially my relationship with fire.
  • Later that night, I can recall a moment when the music was hitting a lull while I was out in the circle and Vatra was cheering me on, walking me through the breakdown. He knew just what to say because of his years of experience and wisdom as a burner and producer coupled with his own passion for fire dancing performance.

I mention Vatra not just because of that moment when he held space so powerfully, but because he created one of the most critical changes that came to the event. Over the years that would follow, Vatra took on a critical role as an organizer and helped transform the gathering from a beach side 150 person event to a 450 person gathering at Cutter’s Boy Scout property in the Santa Cruz redwoods. This was a huge shift for the event and really led to the initial blooming of the festival we know today because Cutter’s scout brought new possibilities.

I remember the first year the price was $60, thinking that was a lot. I quickly realized how much value came with that. We were paying a camping fee for the space which had far more established facilities including running water and porcelain toilets. There was an indoor lodge where we could gather and keep warm. A kitchen was on the property and suddenly, things really changed. In years prior, people brought food and shared. With the big industrial kitchen, suddenly there was a movement toward a communal kitchen and a communal meal plan. For what now seems like such a small amount of money we got so much (more).

Another thing that came with the communal kitchen and the bigger land was the larger fire pit and the need for more people to help make things happen: meals to be prepped and cooked; dishes to be cleaned; more meals to be prepped cooked and cleaned up after; fire wood to be distributed; assistance to be offered in the parking area, greeters to check people in and so on.

Enter: volunteering! Back then it was easy to enroll volunteers because the event was different. The event had a family feel as Vatra, Sky and the rest of the team rallied people together, creating what was definitely a then not-making-a-profit event. Sky, who I’m pretty sure must have taken a loss in the early years, especially when he started subsidizing the travel of artists from around the world, seemingly didn’t care about the bottom line. He cared about, to a great loss in his own wallet, helping drummers and fire dancers all along the West Coast and beyond create a new opportunity to gather. Vatra with his many years of experience as a producer and Burner brought the values of the playa to our community and inspired people to come together and co-create magic.

Fall of 2006 was the first gathering at Cutter’s Scout and the only fall Fire Drums to date at the time of this writing. By spring of 2007, Jordan Campbell and (perhaps later?) Silence were organizing the classes and instead of the casual skill shares that happened informally, people started using breakfast to sunset class schedules to fill their time.

Change was afoot and things continued to grow as the 2008 event came around

Author’s Note: This article offers subjective memoirs from the early years of FireDrums.  Read GlitterGirl’s recap of 2008 onward here.

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 <that pretty little at symbol> TempleOfPoi <daaaaaaaught> com).

Posted in: Articles, Festivals