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Dancing With Fire

Everyone knows traditional male fireknife dancing, but Eleni Cameron and friends dance with fire using hula hoops, poi balls and more. This is one hot show

My heart pounded in anticipation as the oil-soaked wicks fixed around my hula hoop were lit, one by one, igniting instantly in a “whoosh.” I had been practicing hula hoop dancing for a couple years, but with four flaming wicks secured on short metal rods equidistant around my hoop, the margin for error was razor thin.

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Eleni Cameron, Melia Bugeja, Rita Manderfield and Angela Babcock AARON FEINBERG PHOTO

As I started spinning the hoop around my waist, my nervous energy gave way to hyper-focused exhilaration. Inches away from my bare skin and carried by the moving hoop, the bright orange wicks formed comet tails of light around me. The rush of their orbit was audible as they encapsulated my body in fire.

Slipping my hand down to my lower back palm out, I felt for the rhythmic rolling. In one swift motion I closed my fingers around the moving hoop lifting it, still spinning, up and over my head in a blazing halo.

This venture into fire dancing ended with a splash. When the wicks eventually extinguished, I leapt out of my hoop and into the nearby pool. No, I wasn’t on fire. I was aflame with joy.

The day Eleni Cameron, professional fire dancer and creative director of Kalalea Fire, first experienced the craft, she was equally thrilled. Having fallen in love with and practicing Tahitian, African and belly dancing for years, the New Jersey native was mesmerized by the allure of adding the element of fire into choreography. “It’s so beautiful and elegant and dangerous, but gorgeous at the same time,” she explained. “The trails that the fire leaves in relation to the dancer’s body — it completely captivated me.”

Cameron first learned the art of dancing with fire in California in the early-mid-’90s from a musician friend who’d picked up the technique during her travels in Thailand. “There was really nobody fire dancing on the West Coast or anywhere in the country,” she says. Cameron first started with fire poi, swinging a pair of lighted wicks on the ends of a long thin chain to create dramatic glowing circles.

Shortly thereafter, she moved to Kauai in 1999 and noticed there was room for a new type of dance. “Really there were no female fire dancers on the island,” she says. “The island had Samoan fireknife dancers and traditional fire dancing, but none of the fire hula hoops, the poi and all the different modalities.”

So for fun one night, she took her newfound skill to a local outdoor venue. “I was an absolute beginner, and I didn’t think much of it, and then everywhere I went after that, people were so excited about it,” Cameron explained. “Before we knew it, we were fire dancing for James Bond.” The former Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, who owns a home on Kauai, flew Cameron and her dance partner to his Malibu home for a party. “From that point, it really started growing. And we started developing different themes, costumes and shows,” she says.

Demand for the magical experience Cameron and her fellow dancers conjured spread like, well, wildfire, and Kalalea Fire was born.

Two decades later, the troupe performs for corporate as well as music events on Oahu, Kauai and beyond. “It’s an incredible group of women who are such bright lights,” Cameron says. “We just had seven of us traveling in Mexico for 10 days.”

In 2009, the troupe performed onstage with the Grateful Dead for no less than 20,000 people. “I wasn’t nervous. I felt like I was flying,” she says. Their more recent performance with Japan’s No. 1 boy band Arashi, which included 20 dancers, was “mayhem,” she admits.

Of the different iterations of her shows, the one that captures 1940s-era Honolulu is the most popular. Blending the old with the new, the five-person performance encompasses traditional fire knife dancing with burning hula hoops, poi balls, fans, umbrellas and more as well as hand-made vintage-style costumes and a special soundtrack. “The music is a combination of 1940s jungle jazz, old surf music and Tahitian drumming,” Cameron says.

The family-friendly Hawaii Retro show is highly choreographed with heart-pounding duets that require split-second accuracy.

For audiences, watching these beautiful performances is enchanting.

“Performing with (fire) is a whole other level,” said Cameron. “It brings you to this present place.”

Most importantly for Cameron, who focused on women’s studies in college, taming fire’s primal force and turning it into something so fluid is liberating, not to mention confidence boosting.

“To be able to be beautiful, empowered, strong, graceful and feminine at the same time is really important and a great message to be able to share,” says Cameron, who watches her fellow dancers gain self-assurance over time as they own their beauty as females without being afraid.

“I went through that progression myself, and now I’m watching all of my younger sisters, so to speak, go through it also.”

Don’t expect the flame to die anytime soon. By inspiring audiences, Cameron continues to share the passion for the art, and even fans the fires for the next generation with classes for kids ages 6 to 13 on Kauai.

For more information, go to kalaleafire.com.