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Polynesian Cultural Center Fire Dance

Updated on June 11, 2016
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Ruth Kongaika was born in the Rocky Mountains and has lived most of her life in the South Pacific. She travels, gardens and writes.

Every year, in the Spring, there is a competition at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii. Polynesian Cultural Center recently hosted the 19th annual World Fire knife Competition. Several Polynesian warriors demonstrated their skills in aerials and acrobatics whilst twirling knives alighted with real fire. It was an exciting, and dangerous show.

When our son was small, we took him to a fire knife competition at PCC. He was hooked, and he made a war club out of a piece of wood with the two ends wrapped up with tape. He would practice twirling it, and actually got pretty good. I'm glad he never got hurt, but enjoyed the experience. I have to admit that it is mesmerizing watching the fire knife dancers.

The fire knife dance has a long history. It all started in Samoa where the warriors would participate in an "ailao", where they would show their prowess and skill with their war clubs. At first there was not fire in the mix, but in 1946 a Samoan dancer by the name of Letuli Olo Misilagi thought it would make a better show. He later became a chief in Samoa. He had watched a performance that included a Hindu fire eater and a young girl twirling a lit baton, which gave him the inspiration.

The present Fire knife Competition at the Polynesian Cultural Center was dreamed up by Pulefano Galea'i. At first his idea was not accepted with enthusiasm at the center, but with much persistence, it has become one of the highlights of the year. The competition usually lasts for a week.

The fire knife competition starts with an opening ceremony followed by preliminary competitions from which semi-finalists are selected. They have different age groups competing against each other starting with ages 6 - 11. They also have a 12-17 junior division, as well as a 18 and up division.

So, why would a few sane men risk it all in a fire knife competition? Well, for starters, there are monetary awards. But most of them go for the nifo ofi trophies (Samoan word for fire knife is nifu ofi ), which are made by Pulefano Galea'i himself.

The competitors come from around the world to compete. Even girls can compete, although only a few have done so (maybe I should try out!).

What do you wear when you do a fire knife dance? Not much. The only requirement they have is a wrap around or lava lava that is carefully tucked in (something like a diaper) so that no ends are sticking out (fire hazard). They often add embellishments made of natural shredded leaves to their head, neck, arms and legs to accentuate their movements.

Can you get hurt doing the fire knife dance? Of course, is fire hot? That is why they have to keep the fire moving and toughen up their skin. It takes bravery and skills to keep from burning, to say nothing of the sharp knives that could also cause injuries.

Map of Oahu

Polynesian Cultural Center

55-370 Kamehameha Highway, Laie, HI 96762:
55-370 Kamehameha Hwy, Laie, HI 96762, USA

get directions


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