FireDrums: The Evolution of a Festival, Part II

Posted on June 4, 2014 by


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

Vatra & GlitterGirlWith Sky’s vision and Vatra’s production experience, the event continued to show steady growth through a variety of avenues. With the community kitchen in place in 2007 on a limited basis, it expanded more in the next few years and became a mainstay of the community experience where everyone gathered and shared ideas around a communal meal. Not only were there meals to be shared, but Waldemar Horwat’s photos would become an amazing contribution to the community as he printed album after album of fantastic fire photography, much of which was well beyond the work of other photographers, particularly in that era. Waldemar’s photos became an intrinsic part of the culture of the event.

Don’t be fooled — fire gathering or not, Flowtoys, year after year, created light installations to be enjoyed during the night as a gift to the community. 2008 saw an increase in the vending area where more than tools were sold, including this mask from Mythica.

Leather MaskStill, the event seemed from my non-organizer-and-friends-with-the-organizers perspective to be a non-profit gathering and incredibly affordable as a true community event created by and for the community. It was not dissimilar from other burner gatherings I’d attended. In fact, the fire spinning community was largely an offshoot of the Burning Man community, so it wasn’t uncommon to see things organized in the same way.

In those days, burner gatherings I attended typically were organized by a core team who got group leads together that handled different parts of the event through smaller teams. It’s a formula I’d seen work lots of times. People volunteered to help because that’s how you make community happen and you co-create.

When the event was small, that looked like nearly everyone doing something to bring to the event to make it happen. The feel of the event was of family and extended family coming together, where people easily knew a large percentage of the attendees. There wasn’t really a question about volunteering — the event was so affordable, it seemed obvious that the only way that would be possible was if we all pitched in to help. We were helping our friends and since we mostly knew each other, it seems like a communal effort that made sense. Couple that with the prevalence of Burning Man attendees who had worked on large projects and understood creation in community involved pARTicipation.

In those days, the community still wasn’t growing as quickly and YouTube hadn’t taken hold to the extent that we see it in our lives presently. Having gone to the Japan Fire Festival in 2007 to teach, perform and judge their competition as one of the three American judges, I got to meet Yuta. At that time, from my perspective, this video of Yuta practicing was an epic piece of history that really began to connect the poi performance art form across continents through digital video media.

Temple of Poi Class with Yuta, 2008By 2008, Sky and I pooled our resources in an effort to both expand the Temple of Poi Fire Dancing Expo and FireDrums by helping to gather artists from around the globe. Having underwritten Banyan’s flight to get him to perform in The 2007 Expo, in 2008 I contributed maybe 3x the amount in travel fees for Yuta, MCP, IcON and Primal Fire to both come and perform in the 2008 Expo as well as participate in FireDrums that year. This enabled FireDrums to offer international instructors — from multiple continents.

To help offer additional assistance for the artists traveling from abroad, we organized local workshops at Temple of Poi where the Yuta and IcOn taught Temple of Poi students before making their way to the classes at FireDrums.

At the time, Firedrums and Wildfire were the biggest (if not only) fire festivals state side of which I am aware. The draw of so many out of town artists coupled with the strong Bay Area presence, including the then up and coming performance troupe, Vulcan crew, solidified FireDrums as a “place to be” if you were connected into the fire dancing community.

By 2009, the classes seemed more important than the fire circle to some people, a real shift in the culture of the festival which had been wild and free without structure in the early years and without any actual schedule. That’s not to say people didn’t share ideas, yet there was just as much hanging out and enjoying nature as there were skill shares.

As the schedule continued to grow, so did the event. In 2009, I again combined forces with Sky to help subsidize travel to the 2009 Expo and FireDrums for Grimm, Cyrille, Rovo & Corey, MCP, Jexi & Icon, Ima and Manda Lights, Thomas, Dai, Mireneye and Yuta who attended the event, most of whom also taught classes. Undeniably, the consistent year to year attendance of such a powerful international community of stars contributed to the reputation FireDrums built of being an international destination event for fire dancers and flowbos around the globe.

Cutter's Scout PitThe schedule and popularity of the festival were not the only things to grow. Back in 2006, the fire circle, pictured here in the day time, was only as large as the area where the ground is darker. By 2010, the entire area was utilized, if anything, perhaps overflowing. The festival seemingly had hit capacity at this venue.

While 2009 boasted a special caliber of participants in the Expo for whom we partnered in service of affordable transportation, 2010, our last partnership with FireDrums, included fiscal support for Adam Herscheid & Rob Horner who performed both as soloists and in a duet together; Yuta, who again returned, Kyle Ford and Drex. Other’s, including MCP,  had been slated to come but scheduling issues kept them away.

Met with bad weather for yet another year (Spring of 2006, 2009 and 2010 all sported some amount of dancing in the mud, with 2010 being perhaps the worst), in 2011, the festival changed dates and no longer worked in conjunction with the Fire Dancing Expo. About this time, Vatra was no longer involved with the planning of the event. 2011 is the only year to date that the festival sold out the first day (in under 12 minutes as I understand it) tickets went on sale and it has neither sold out as quickly — since nor prior.

In addition to the festival moving later in the season, 2011 changed location to Camp Navaro in Northern California. In 2011, with a ticket purchase system firmly in place and the old event organizers disengaged, the event took an interesting turn from my perspective, including a new management team that no longer worked with me. The cost of the ticket went from something like $85 in 2010 to $120 in 2010. A sizable price hike.

From my perspective as an attendee, things changed at this point. This was reflected at the gate when one needed to get a bracelet to prove they could spin fire. The organizers were not offering a fire safe option (only a plastic thing you were required to wear to prove you’d signed some form) unless you paid more money (even if it was only $5) to get metal dog tags, rather than including that in the cost of the ticket. After a $35 price hike you can’t include the dog tags?

Fair enough. Things change.

It is in this moment, for me, that the festival was born: bracelets you have to pay for to be fire safe at a fire festival.

To me, that was a defining moment. The organizer’s either hadn’t planned well enough or no longer cared enough to ensure that people’s ticket price (which previously was only to cover food/lodging and now apparently covered a lot more) didn’t include something as basic as a fire safe bracelet, particularly since we were being required to wear them. It might sound like a picky thing, and at a festival today you’re unlikely to see it since the use of silicon bracelets have come into play. Still, this coupled with the implementation of “mandatory volunteering” changed the experience for me.

2012 showed yet another increase in cost of the festival, from $120 to $150. At the same time, a communal kitchen was no longer a part of the festival. Increase in cost and decrease in value. With the same number of volunteer shifts even though no more kitchen shifts were required.

I can appreciate that the year to year increase is likely a result of the previous organizers not breaking even. Still, it felt a little off for me that people were made to sign an agreement that would kick them out of the festival if they didn’t “volunteer” after paying to attend. In addition, with the reduction of shifts from the kitchen, why should everyone still need to do the same number of shifts?

I’ve been told they needed the same number of shifts because so many people flake out and don’t show up for their volunteers shift. Maybe that’s because it’s being mandated. Maybe it represents the change in the event: growth beyond an intimate community to a festival where people feel comfortable breaking their words because, ultimately, there’s isn’t much in the way of community accountability and you may never even have to look that person in the face.

Sadly, it makes sense.

Except it sort of sucks. If they are creating 40% more shifts than they need, that’s grossly inefficient and adds to the overhead of the festival which adds to the cost.

Alas, it’s not my festival and it’s been year’s since the organizer’s partnered with me. What I’ve noticed most over the decade plus since the festival started is:

  • as a consequence of growing the festival, it is no longer intimate
  • the community is too big for everyone to know most everyone and that wasn’t true when the event started
  • what once were people going on a pilgrimage to see something they couldn’t see anywhere else has become more of a commercial gathering and easily available commodity
  • when fire drums started it was the only fire spinning festival (that I know of in the world) whereas today people can attend over 20 in a year just in the USA
  • where we gathered together cooking meals for each other and serving each other, we no longer can connect en masse
  • where drums were a huge part of the festival they been mostly replaced by a 3 night dj lineup
  • where the average age was probably over 30, the average age now is probably around or under 25

Ignight Fire FestivalAnd what’s been a pleasant revelation is an acknowledgement that the event caters to a different demographic (age & experience) than a decade ago, at least from my perspective.

Though it’s no longer alone in the category of Fire Festivals in California, and can’t expect everyone to attend where there are other options going on, including Master Ong’s Flow Retreat and Ignight, the later of which is perhaps my most favorite festival in the last 4 years.

If you’re active on the Facebook FireDrums forum and have been over the last few years, you won’t be surprised to read I struggled hard with this particular evolution. As a participant, I feel like I’ve lost that annual gathering I have with “old” friends because, as much as anything, fewer of the “old timers” like me are around. Even Khan Wong, one of the few in our community of my age group, resigned from the FlowShow this year and stepped back from spinning.

I’m truly happy for those who enjoy the current incarnation of the festival, though, I guess I really am getting old because I was made fun of when I suggested house music be played in the main circle. Perhaps that age gap really does create more difference than I’d prefer. I’m reminded of people listening to Chuck Berry in the 50’s thinking the Beatles, Stone and other music of the 60’s were that “new fangled music” they didn’t like. And now, here I am feeling that way about dub step, glitch, trap and the other genre’s that seem to be pervading the sound system at night.

In the end, I miss what was even though I’m glad for those currently running the festival that they are focusing on a sustainable means of running it as a business. I do hope issues like “mandatory volunteering” and uncompensated instructors will get addressed, and in my nostalgic state, this video seems to sum things up well…


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