safe costumes for fire performers

fireperformer

Tanoura Turned Fire Dress

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One wouldn’t want their first driving experience to be in a Ferrari, on a competitive races would they? It’s much the with this fire prop. The fire dress is for only the very experience fire performer and the very experienced spinner. When I hear fire performers ask for a fire dress, it usually always sounds like a crazy request! I really don’t like hearing it! unless the dancer is familiar to spinning, and not spinning poi that is.

There is an actual art to spinning, turning around oneself for extended period of time. Its been used for both meditation and for ancient performance art. Although, not popular in America, there are many places in the world where spinning/whirling is a performance art appreciated much like a ballet or any other kind of dance.

I first saw spinning/whirling in Turkey. And it was there that I learned some details about whirling dervish. That said, it being a ancient Sufi meditation turned tourist attraction didn’t make the art form appealing for me. I don’t like mixing meditation and spirituality, that is still being practiced, with my performance art. The reason why I feel this way is simple, I don’t want to offend any one. Plus, I feel weird doing it.

When I went to a tourist desert camp retreat in Dubai I saw a Tanoura performance for the first time. That is when I was truly inspired! Tanoura is a lot like Dervish, only with the sole purpose to entertain. They spin for up to an hour or longer and use props to add symbolism and intrigue. The first time I saw a Tanoura dancer I fell in love! A year later I was offered a job as a fire and flow belly dancer show in Sharm El Sheik Egypt. I had the great pleasure to see Tanoura every night! I meet and performed with many Tanoura dancers on the same stage. They would usually go on before our group and we shared a dressing room. It was in the back stage area that I learned many things from them. How to turn, use heals, always turn left. What not to eat, never eat dairy. The props and meanings. It was truly and inspiring experience.

Before I went home I bought a Tanoura from Cairo. It was a basic traditional one, with brightly colored geometric designs. At the time I wanted to express my creativity and decided to paint on the Tanoura. I wanted peacocks on one side and naughty pictures of girls on the other. I think I spent too long in a conservative place and this was an artistic rebellion. Regardless of my artistic intentions, the already heavy dress meant for men became unbelievably heavy once layers of painted and gold leaf was added to the already thick canvas. Also, no one understood what I was doing. Tanoura is so unknown in the USA and no one wanted to see a perversion of the original obscure concept indeed.

I dreamed of using my Tanoura and mixing it with Belly Dance but clients, even Egyptian clients, didn’t like the idea of it. Restaurants were open to the seeing it in action, but space was often a problem. One needs a huge space to spin safely with a giant dress. Also, what I did with my Tanoura was a problem. Tradition tanoura is geometric in pattern and always looks the same and, mine was a whimsical creation that only I seemed to fully appreciate.

Everything was to change when I was offered a job at a Medieval Festival for a Magic Belly Dance Show. Tanoura had a place again! We decided to use it for the opening and make the skirt look somewhat like medieval dresses. I made two Tanoura’s with my own hands, using the real tanoura as a templet. I was still obsessed with peacocks, therefore one side sported hand painted peacocks. While the other was constructed to look like a giant dress. Our Tanoura belly dance act, is an art form of unraveling. This is nice because its similar to a tradition tanoura act which is also unraveling and pealing off layers of clothing. We pulled a lot of inspiration from the traditional of belly dance and other oriental dance, and now its a solid staple in this show.

Although I had dreams of making a fire dress in Egypt I knew that making one and using it would be insane without mastering a spinning art form. A fire dress is actually dangerous! In my option the most dangerous of all props. If you are not professional with spinning, than you shouldn’t be thinking of making a fire dress, or using a fire dress. People have died using a fire dress and the way they are made makes standard safety protocols inefficient if you get dizzy and fall on yourself. With Tanoura you shouldn’t stop spinning or the performance magic is broken. With a fire dress you CAN NOT STOP SPINNING, or you go up in a flames with your dress.

In my opinion the best safety measurement to take with all flow arts is practice, practice and practice. Safties are nessasary for a fire show! I use a safety for public events. That said the reliance on your safety when putting on professional shows is not okay. A professional fire performer should not actually use a safety. I have never used my safety. A safety is there in case of an emergency, not as your personal assistant or as someone to put fires out on your body. They are not their to retrieve props that have gone out of control; I’ve seen way to many fire hoops, and other props, being tossed into the audience and the safety being on the other side of the room, making their presence in the show totally useless. Its the performers responsibility to be comfortable with their skills before performing professionally. With a fire dress this advice is even more extreme!

If you can’t hold a log spin without fire, then with fire, and smoke and anxiety with performing, you might actually loose balance. If you fall durning a fire dress act you will be hurt regardless of how talented your safety is. There is a well documented case of a safety instructor, giving a safety class, who landed himself in the hospital because he was was under the impression that he was completely safe with the five or more safeties hovering over him. He did something that was unsafe, his safety was amazing and still he went into the hospital. Again, take precautionary safety measures when doing fire performance such as the fire dress.

Being a good spinner is number one but there is also a number of other factors to take into consideration. A level ground, without cracks and a proper grip for your feet. Spinning on a slope makes spinning so much more difficult, you tend to gravitate toward the lowest part of the room. Also tiles and other cracks effects a spin. pinning on a crack on the floor has a weird effect with balance. If you are a good spinner you can correct yourself and work with a slope or a cracky floor. Unfortunately, if you are not a practiced spinner then strapping yourself into a circle of fire and spinning on a cracks or a slop is working with too many variables and that is when accidents can happen and people get hurt regardless if a safety is present.

I took many precautions with making my dress. I used only material that doesn’t catch, metal! This made the dress safe but rather pricey. I lined the metal with kevlar fabric so the metal wouldn’t catch on my costumes. The dress could easily come off with snaps. The whole profess took me a long time to make, a month in total. The kevlar is four inches from the metal fabric running in a rope by metal chains.

Fueling is very difficult no matter what fuel you use. In America I use white gas and with that I have to lit with a torch while spinning. I’m always afraid when performing in America. The time between fueling and walking out to my spinning position I’m the most scared. I’m always afraid of the performer I’m working with and that they might lit the dress up by getting to close to that much fuel. The prop is so heavily fueled with a product that can easily transfer. In Asia or Europe we use paraffin. This fuel needs time to lite. One has to sit and wait for the fire to catch. This makes me nervous because the timing needs to be right. Spinning prematurely can be a problems and spinning too late could also be a problem. For photoshoots I’ve used a very week fuel that I would never use in an actual show. A very watered down alcohol can used if the dress is stagnate.

Painted in Silk and fire, Fire Safe Wings

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Fire wings are a great way to make a statement in a fire show! Either used as a back drop for picture taking, or to flutter around fairy like, they are a great way to break up a longer fire show set and add variety. There are a number of ways of making fire wings. As an artist who works with silk, and a belly dancer who uses wings, my preference is fire Isis wings off of the belly dance Polyester wings pattern. In this blog i’ll go over how I make and have made fire wings. I’ll go over my mistakes and the learning process I went through.

The inspiration to make fire wings came from two places, an illustration from Erte and the first time I saw fire wings in a fire show by Linda Farcus. The wings made by Linda were lovely, in an angelic way, but kinda looked a bit like white bed sheets, they may actually have been made from white bed sheets. Regardless the concept intrigued me and I wanted to build off of both the Erte and Isis wing model and make it truly my own.

My first wings I made were off of the Erte drawing, which in retrospect was a mistake. He used wings attached to the arms with bracelets. They draped down the arms like curtains from a rod. In the illustration they looked like the embodiment of elegance. I painted phenixes tangled within each other on the silk. Unfortunately, the silk I used didn’t drape curtain like. Meanwhile, the actual cut framed the body awkwardly. I was working with recycled wedding gowns at the time and used what I had. The wings were used with palm torches. Unfortunately they looked weird. And I felt awkward and strange performing with them.

I learned some valuable lessons with this project.

  1. Be thoughtful with the cut. Don’t count on recycled fabric for an already to go easy pattern.

  2. There are many weaves with silk that effect how it flows. Some weaves are great for silk belly dance veils but not suitable for wings. Wings, especially fire wings need to be a denser heavier fabric.

  3. Also there is a difference in weight even in the same weaves. Unlike other fabrics where they measure in thread count, (like sheets). To determine thickness of the weave, with silk, its actually done by weights. This is because counting silk threads is a daunting task.

  4. The reason why Erte is a famous illustrator, not a designer, is that his actual designs are not particle and more conceptual. If they worked in a practical ready to wear world then half the population would be sporting his amazing designs!


The second wings, (THE PURPLE WINGS SHOWN BELOW) were also made from a recycled wedding gowns, but this time the shape was close to the Isis wings used by belly dancers. At the time I was getting a number of Mardi Gras bookings and was inspired by this theme. I was also obsessed with the Goddess Anatolia so her head is there within all the colors of Mardi Gras.

There was some problems with the design. At first I made the actual torch rods too big! Wings are made of fabric, rods and torches on the end. I should’ve measured the rods to the exact length of fire wings but I didn’t. I was being too creative! Creativity is great but sometimes it’s better to model of what actually works. The steal rods were also way too heavy! I did end up cutting off the rods almost in half, this helped but the actual metal I used is a thick gadge and clumsy. This made is not the best to moving around fairy like or holding them up for pictures for very long. These wings are an arm workout! I did make a matching set so they look nice for duo acts and I still use them when an opportunity comes.

My next wings (the RED WINGS) were too much scrappy! Halloween was approaching and so was a belly dance duo act I had with another dancer and I wanted red matching wings! Unfortunately, it was bad timing. I made them from wire, the brasier I was borrowing moved to California and I wasn’t gifted a welder yet. I also didn’t have the right silk available. I decided to sew scrap pieces together. I dismissed the different thread counts and weaves, telling myself they will blow around in an intriguing way. With fabric, but each weave effects how it dyes. Also, sometimes it says 100% silk and it seems to be a little bit of a mix with Polyester. This also creates a inconsistency when dying. Because I worked with scraps I had some funky inconsistencies. They didn’t dye or flow right and the wire frame didn’t have the same security as the metal rods. They wobbled around and were unpredictable with movement. Unfortunately I made two that matched. omg… I went too far, know your limitations!


Pictures below of lovely PURPLE WINGS and not so lovely RED WINGS.


My inspiration for the next fire wings were off the Goddess Isis. I wanted something to match my Cleopatra crown. I used a technique called batik to dye the wings. I should’ve done silk painting to get a cleaner effect but batik got the job done. With the Isis wings I worked out the many kinks from the previous designs. This new Isis wing design was complex, more than it had to be.

I was in love with the idea of attaching the wicks by screwing them into the rod so they could be used without fire too. This didn’t work well in action. Durning shows they came loose, never came undone durning live action, but I feared they would eventually fly into the crowed. Once they did come undone while my safety was packing up, we had to drive back to collect the wick. I ended up welding them together after that and scrapped the idea of making them detachable. I had a welder at the time so the job was SO MUCH cleaner then wire! I don’t recommend ever using wire with fire wings.


There was scrap fabric metal left over from the fire dress and that was used to trimme the wings. This added another element of safety. The wicks were further from the actual silk, both by physical measurement and by being weighted and less likely to blow over onto the torches durning a show. It also added weight to the design and helped with flow. This wing design is perfection in my opinion and from now on out I’ll use it as a reference.

FIRE SAFTY AND FIRE WINGS

Before one prancing around with fire wings I highly recommend spraying them with fire retardant spray first. And make sure you use the right fabric. Here are some recommendations before you get started.

  1. ALL!!!! my wings are sprayed with fire retardant spray! I do not use just silk without using fire retardant spray. A little story to prove my point that you need to spray wings and all silks if you want to use them with fire! I never caught wings on fire!!! Ever! Except once... I decided to clean the wings. (If the fabric gets wet, or you wash it, you need to respray) A last min show came in and I had to run over and perform without spraying. Infact the wings didn’t even fully dry. It was a bad idea to bring them! In that one show I actually burned a few wholes in the wings! The fire didn’t catch but it effected the quality of fabric. I was able to sew them up but still it was one show without spray! I didn't hundreds with and nothing ever happened.

  2. Do not use polyester wings. I know they are super cheap! $12 dollars and you got some wings off of amazon. It’s seems easy enough to add on torches and your ready to go. This is the worst thing you could possibly do. Silk and polyester are completely different! Silk even without spray doesn’t catch on fire. If I used polyester for wings I would be dead! Polyester is basically tinny strands of plastic weaved together to resemble cloth! If it catches fire it lights up and turns to liquid plastic. Melted plastic on the skin will send you to the hospital. Getting burnt plastic off of skin is a painful process. I’ve seen some bellydancers use polyester wings with fire and could not believe what I was seeing!

  3. For more information on fire safety please check out my blog.

BURN BRIGHT, BURN SAFE



Fire Safty and Killer costumes, that wont kill you

As a professional fire performer fire safety is a real concern. One wrong move and we can go up in flame, therefore protocol to keep one safe is a vital part of our profession. The seemingly basic common sense logistics is a lot more complex than at first glance. Each fire performer has a slightly different take on how they keep themselves safe and there are a number of issues and articles that can be written on the subject. For now I’ll be covering one aspect of how I keep myself safe for my shows, how I make my own fire safe costumes.

Photo Shoot or our show, silk gowns!

Photo Shoot or our show, silk gowns!

Rococo fashion and fire safety at first glance don’t go together. In general fabric is considered a liability in a fire show. This is partly due to the fact that affordable flashy fabrics are unsafe fabrics to use around fire. If that shinny/sparkly POLYESTER catches on fire it will spread, quickly lighting up around you and turning to liquid plastic that will melt to your skin ouch! Therefore using billowing fabric with fire seems absolutely insane! But wait a min. Blankets are used to protect you and put out fire props durning a show… Theatrically one can make costumes using treated organic material like a fire blanket and not put themselves at risk. The reason I say theatrically is that it’s a little more complex than treating organic fabrics and making a costume from them.


The Foundation of fire safe clothing is understanding the different between organic fabric vs synthetic. Patroliume based fabrics are not okay to do fire shows with! They are basically stings of plastic and when burned turn to melted lava plastic. Don’t believe me? Do a burn test to see. Burn a piece of Polyester, then burn a piece of cotton. The difference is huge! Unike natural fibers, many of which are self extinguishing, once plastic starts to burn it burns! Why would fire dancers use fabrics like this you may ask? The reason is because the fabric is so reasonably priced and look so good!

In fact polyester looks like silk! It was designed to replace silk and mimic the feel and luster, only sell for one tenth the price. As a performer I wanted to look amazing and be safe, that is why almost all my fabrics for shows are made of 100% silk. That is why at first glance a Rocco show with huge gowns and wigs looks so dangerous. Polyester gives silk a bad reputation but in reality silk is one of the best fire friendly choices of fabric despite it looking just as amazing as it copy cat Polyester.

Here are three major reasons I use silk for my fire shows and why I prefer it over all other fire friendly materials.

  1. The weave is tight, silk produces the tightest weave known to nature (besides maybe spider fabric) but where can you possibly purchase that. Only other fabrics that compare on tight weave are fabricated made of plastic. You can test the quality of silk weave by pouring water on the fabric to prove my point. It can actually retain much of the water, creating a pool in the fabric. slowly dripping through. This materials weave was so tight that durning world war one, before Polyester was around, parachutes were made from silk! One can’t jump out into the sky with Cotton! Why is a tight weave a good thing? In general the tighter the weave the less air flows in-between the fabric. Since fire needs oxygen to continue to spread this means the less likely the fiber will catch and spread. Silk, although looking very dangerous in a show (thanks polyester!) is the most bad ass organic fabric around! I have a video of my silk pants putting out a lit poi ball like a fire blanket durning a show. I made silk wings and although they look insanely scary because commurcail Isis wings are made of polyester, they are amazingly fire safe. I have used them in hundreds of show. The silk has touched the torches more times then I would like to admit, and has not damage the silk! There has been times I put down the flames on the silk totally by accident. My heart dropped and I was certain there would be wholes in the fabric but nothing it didn’t burn.

  2. Silk looks amazing! Nothing looks better than silk, nothing feels better. The luster the delicate way it floats in the air, silk is magical!

  3. The third reason I love using silk is that I’m a silk painter. I can make any pattern on silk. Its the easierst, smoothies fabric to paint or batik and i’m in love. If its not silk i’m not enthusiastic.

Fire wings I hand made and batiked dyed, made out of 100% silk, material has worked well, in the past has actually put out fire like a fire blanket.

Fire wings I hand made and batiked dyed, made out of 100% silk, material has worked well, in the past has actually put out fire like a fire blanket.


The reason silk isn’t the number one fabric used in the fire community is simple. Its very pricey! Its at least ten times more than polyester and four times as much as cotton. The reality of the situation is if I wasn’t a silk artist, who made her own costumes, silk wouldn’t be an option for me as a performers on a budget. The price of the fabric and the costume cost is not practical for a fire performer who does this for a living. Only reason I use only silk is because I order it in raw and in bulk and make my own costumes and actually save money doing it that way. I spend a lot of my time and energy making fire safe costumes that look unsafe!

For more example of silk dying for shows follow my other blog post

Back to the world of Rococo. This crazy show concept was conceived when my husband and I made the decision to live the life of “JET-SETTERS” and split our time between Paris and the NYC area. He is from Paris and wanted to remain close to family and friends. The problem was I didn’t have a show in Paris. But that was all to change. After the third Palace we visited the idea of a Rococo fire show was conceived. The safety road blocks were apparent from the start. The stye was decadent in every way. That’s its appeal, and also the problem. People dressed more like drapery then clothing and the head pieces! Every thing that was fantastic about Rococo was a issue.

Gowns were a good place to start. They were less of a problem for me then head dresses. Durning the hight of my silk dying career 40 silk wedding dresses were donated to me. With a plethora of Vera Wang and Bagla Mishkas the insane cost of silk dresses were not a problem. All I had to do was dye bath them. I also used old dresses and upcyled them from projects that went array. With all that said it was a little insane dying a dress with a price tag of 5,000 pink and knowing that it would be paraded with fire crowns for the rest of its days, but it was better than a dress of polyester that would be a ticking bomb to go up in flames.

Head dresses were next and they were more of an issue. They could be easily bought on amazon but wearing polyester on my head seemed both cheap looking and dangerous. Getting real hair was out of the question, the amount of money that would be spent was off the charts. I decided to use bleached wool. Being blonde helped, with a little baby powder and some wool I was able to get a cleaver look for the actual fire shows. Meanwhile for the roaming/roving section of the show I made fire crowns out of wool, on a metal frame. The wicks attached to magnets wicks could be taken off for fueling compromising the crown. The crown could be easily take off and on if something were to happen.

For more examples of crowns read some more blogs on this site.

It all seems rather straight forward right?! Stick to organic fiber fabrics. But sadly it isn’t that simple. The last step is treating the fabric. I do treat all my fabric with fire retardant spray. This precautionary step makes a show like the Rococo Fire Show possible. Even with heavy weight silk, prancing around a palace with a untreated huge dress with a fire crown, doesn’t seem like a good idea. Durning the time of Maria Antoinette more than one fat dress, hug haired madam caught herself on fire from candle chandlers. With all hat said, there are some issue with the fire retardant spray. Ideally the fabric shouldn’t be touching the skin, being that its caringnic. Therefore I only use it on the skirts and head pieces. And spraying without protection is carcinogenic and having it around you may be carcinogenic.

Yes, we have dodged the possible fatality of bursting into flames and now come face to face with increasing our chances of cancer, yippie. Believe it or not fire retardant spraying is a whole big fat issue and one that generates debate in all aspects of our modern life. Fire retardant sprays are used in mattresses and curtains and a tone of other products in our house. The whole issue is vast and complex and makes ones head spin. That said as a fire performer I will would rather not put myself at risk of going up in a blaze of fire and use the sprays to protect myself.

Now that costumes are out of the way, I would like to address that fire safe protocol revolves around the costume choices. Due to the dresses, even though silk sprayed, are still a liability for a fire show. Therefore we only use them for fire masks and fire crowns. Swinging fire props into folds of fabric isn’t a good idea regardless of precautionary steps. For The actual show we have a boudoir look, basic silk corset and puffy shorts. Also to be noted is that fire safeties are on hand and fuel drip is something that is taken care of at the fuel dump. It’s good to take note and remember that even a fire retardant organic fiber blanket, designed to keep performers safe can catch on fire if soaked in fuels, therefore a dripping props is a dangerous prop with the risk of fuel transfer.

Burn Safely and Burn Bright!



Fire Crown, metal, jewels and wool with magnetic wick removal

Fire Crown, metal, jewels and wool with magnetic wick removal