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All Fired Up
Gerald Tiqui Gerald J. “Tiki” Tiqui
Image courtesy: Gerald Tiqui

Gerald Tiqui Tiki announces his presence at Goddard Day. Credit: NASA Goddard/Debbie McCallum
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Gerald Tiqui Tiki demonstrates his dancing at Goddard Day. Credit: NASA Goddard/Debbie McCallum
› Larger image
Most mothers instruct their children never to play with fire. Gerald J. “Tiki” Tiqui’s mother, however, simply says, “It’s your life. If you want to get burned, go ahead.”

Tiki, an Equal Opportunity Specialist in Goddard’s Equal Opportunity Program Office, is a professional Polynesian dancer specializing in the Samoan Fire Knife dance. For the past 20 years, he has been performing with a local entertainment group called HOALOHA, which is Hawaiian for “friends.”

Tiki was born and raised in Hawaii and is a mixture of Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese, and Spanish. Tiki learned Polynesian dancing at the age of nine as part of the Hawaiian cultural heritage that includes a mixture of Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, and Maori cultures. Tiki and his entire family danced with a halau, a group that performs for events including competitions. Around 1989, the kumuhula or teacher of his current halau asked him if he would like their departing fire knife dancer to train him as a replacement. Tiki’s reaction was, “Sure. Fire knife dancing is fascinating! When you see something like that, you know that not everyone can do it.” Tiki was then in his 20s.

Today, fire knife dance instruction begins when the student is only four or five years old and parental consent is required. Tiki further explains that “it was once forbidden for females to do fire knife dancing as part of the culture. Today you will see females doing fire knife dancing.” According to Tiki, “It takes great athletic skills, strength, and endurance to perform this dance and a little bit of a crazy mind set to want to play with fire.” Tiki was crazy enough to undertake this challenge and successful enough to perform on stage.

For obvious reasons, fire knife dancing can only be learned from another professional fire knife dancer. The initial instruction generally takes six months to one year, but Tiki was rushed through in only two and one half months because their fire knife dancer was leaving. He only had enough time to learn the basic moves.

Since then, he has taken master classes from the top two fire knife dancers in the world. According to Tiki, “You have to prove to these top instructors that you are worthy of being taught special skills that they will only teach to a select few.” Tiki has become a teacher as well. Fire knife dancing has a unique rite of passage. As Tiki explains, “To be a true fire knife dancer, you have to do the entire routine blindfolded before you may use fire. This is because you always have to be aware of where your fire is.”

The fire knife dance is based on the knife dance, an ancient, traditional Samoan ceremonial dance that dates back to the 1800s. At that time, Samoan weapons consisted of wooden knives and swords and the music was rhythmic chants and songs. Today, metal has replaced wood. Around 1940, fire was added to the knife dance and the music changed to pulsating drumming on wooden drum logs, bass drums, and even tin cans to further increase the excitement level.

Tiki notes that “a ceremonial dance means dancing to the Chief or the Court, which only happens during important ceremonies.” Even unlit, the fire knife, or Siva Afi, is rather formidable. Tiki made his fire knife customized to his arm length so his fire knife is three feet long. One end has a knife fourteen inches long and two inches wide. The other end has a ball four inches in diameter. Both ends are wrapped in fire-resistant material that he sets on fire using Coleman lamp fuel to produce a cooler and cleaner flame than would gasoline.

Although he is very careful, Tiki admits that “Every time I dance, my arm and chest hair get burned.” The key to minimizing burns is to maintain a steady tempo when moving. Tiki treats his burns with silverdene, an ointment used for burn victims, or aloe creams depending on their severity. Tiki’s position is that “To be a true fire knife dancer, you will get burned. You cannot be afraid of the fire.”

The fire knife dance requires a highly specific sense of place, focus, and frame of mind. As for place, the routine must fit each particular space. In addition, for outside performances, the direction of the wind is critical in order to know which direction to face. Tiki further explains the concept of a sense of space in that “You need to be focused on your surroundings and the people around you. You must always know your place within the space.”

Regarding focus and frame of mind, Tiki instructs that, “It takes a lot of training to focus on one thing at a time and to block any negativity, which is a distraction. Of course I always have a smile on my face when performing the fire knife dance. I even smile bigger when I burn myself because then I start gritting my teeth. I take this very seriously to make sure that I do not harm anyone. Then I just focus on the routine I’m going to do within that space.”

In addition to practicing his actual routine, Tiki must be physically prepared. He works on building his strength and flexibility. According to him, “To do something like this, you have to be pretty athletic and flexible. I do a lot of exercising and stretching. I must be stretched to do my routine.”

Tiki toughens his skin in any area which will touch the fire knife flame. For example, he walks barefoot a lot to build calluses on his feet. During his routine, he lies on his back, puts his feet in the air, and places the burning fire knife on his feet. He puts the fire knife on the ball of his foot because it is the toughest part of the foot. By the way, he has never walked on fire. Tiki also touches the flaming fire knife with his tongue. As he explains, “The first time I stuck fire on my tongue, I wound up getting a lot of burn blisters. Today I have no problems. It’s like building calluses on your hands.”

Tiki also prepares mentally before doing his routine. He explains that “Before I do my routine, I say a chant three times for protection. Every fire knife dancer has his own special chant.” Tiki relies on a Buddhist chant spoken in Japanese but usually written in ancient Chinese Sanskrit which is “NAM MYOHO RENGE KYO.” Loosely translated, his chant means “Devotion to the mystic law through cause and effect and by sound and rhythm.”

Each fire knife dancer has a signature move. Tiki explains his as follows: “I roll on the ground on top of the burning knife. As long as you keep moving, you won’t get burned.” His routine lasts about five minutes. His costume is a Samoan loin cloth with rings of artificial fern leaves around his wrists, ankles, and head.

Tiki wants his audience “to drop their jaws and ask, ‘Is that guy crazy?’” As for himself, Tiki describes his reaction as follows: “It’s thrilling. It’s a fastpaced routine. Your adrenaline is pumping. A lot of fire knife dancers only do the fire knife dance and no other dances. I do other dances too.” Most of all, Tiki wants his audience “to always remember the fire knife dance and all the other Polynesian dances.” For Tiki, the fire knife and other dances are not a sport; rather, these dances are his way of sharing his ancient culture.

Tiki offers the following advice to anyone who wishes to learn Samoan fire knife dancing: “First, you have to respect the fire. Second, you cannot be afraid of the fire. Third, be happy in what you do because if you’re happy doing this, things will go your way. When I’m having a bad day and do the fire knife dance, I can get careless and get hurt.”

Any aspiring fire knife dancers should be pleased that Tiki does not charge for giving lessons. His open-door policy is that “If you want to learn, I’ll teach you if you feed me.” Just don’t tell your mother.
Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.