From the Olympic torch to the licking flames of Dante's Inferno, fire is an element that blazes with symbolism, representing everything from passion and strength to recklessness and punishment.
As children, we're told to stay away, yet there's something dangerously enticing about an entity that can as easily destroy as protect, burn as give warmth, take life as create the conditions necessary to sustain it.
From the beginning of human history, we've depended on fire for our survival. No matter how technologically advanced the world becomes, when faced with its magic, we still find ourselves drawn, entranced like moths.
"I both eat and breathe fire," says Travis Fessler, 34.
He's not a dragon but one of those among us for whom that primal attraction developed into an intense relationship and even a means to make a living. Imagine getting paid to put out a torch on your tongue.
In the long-respected tradition of the sideshow, Fessler and his brother provide an act that involves everything from fire-breathing to sword-swallowing to lying on a bed of nails. Together they form the Pickled Brothers Sideshow, deriving their name from the endearing term "pickled punks," an old carnival expression referring to two-headed babies in jars.
"The whole show is ... kind of considered a comedy stunt show," Fessler says.
"Where a lot of the other fire performers will do an artistic choreographed dance or routine to (fire), we do more like an ad-libbed improv comedy with dangerous stunts."
How does one decide to become a professional fire-eater? Fessler describes his career choice with a hint of self-mockery.
"My standard line is that I was a really bad magician," he says. "I started out doing magic at kids' parties and just wasn't as good as most of the other magicians I was meeting, and I thought, 'Well, I need a hook,' (so) I started eating fire. It kinda snowballed from there. ... I moved away from magic because ... anymore I look at magic as fake, whereas everything I do is real."
Lauren Frederick, 29, and Andi Ridder, 30, discovered their love for fire arts through belly dancing. They first encountered fire dance with palm torches and poi while working with the Gainanda dance company and then continued their affair with fire, recently forming a four-member collaborative called Dante's Gypsy Circus.
"A lot of the different fire-based troupes are often circus groups," Frederick says. "We're hoping maybe in the future to do some stuff with stilts and juggling and maybe some acrobatics and ambitiously are looking into acrobatics aerials ... like the big old Cirque du Soleil silks that they spin up. I've been trying to find a place in my house where I could hang them ... been trying to figure out if I could build a structure in my back yard. My neighbors are going to think I'm nuts."
Frederick lists other common tools of the trade: poi, derived from the Maori culture, which are basically Kevlar wicks attached to a chain that are spun in each hand; the fire staff, which, as in martial arts, is a long staff that can be set aflame; the fire fan, a dance tool reminiscent of large oriental fans; fire swords; flammable jump ropes and headpieces; stretchers that can be worn as wings; and the human body itself, which is often used to transfer flame from a body part to an instrument.
Natasha, 24, of the group Pyrokinetika, who prefers to go by her stage name, adds another tool to the list: the fire hoop.
"Fire hooping is not like your parent's hula hoop," she says.
The videos on her Web site make this apparent — she turns a simple circle into the basis for an entire routine, for which fire is actually just icing on the cake.
"I was drawn more to the art form behind fire, like the poi spinning and the hooping," Natasha says. "It was quite a rush at first. But to be honest, now I mainly only do fire at performances because it's showy. What I really like are the art forms that you do with fire."
Ridder also uses fire to accent her dancing, specializing in fire fans and palm torches.
"It's just amazing what you can do with dance in general," she says, "but you add to that an element such as fire and it has a power and an energy that just radiates off of it. I think there's a very tribal element to it. ... (Fire) represents strength and power, and I think it's a lost art in a way. The things that we do, it's not brand new. These are things that people in tribes and cultures have done many, many moons before we ever came up with it."
Grimm, 26, of the Incendium Arts troupe (who also goes by his stage name), says a little fire can turn any dance routine upside-down. Yet he — as well as the other artists — warns against simply picking up flammable equipment and winging it.
Natasha says, "As well as personal harm, there are chemical issues. ... Fire breathing is the most dangerous (as) the fire can ignite the fuel in your mouth and burn out your lungs."
One can also become very sick from inhaling, ingesting or absorbing chemicals from the fuels, possibly developing something known in the trade as "fire-eater's pneumonia," which can't be treated with antibiotics.
Besides safety, there are other reasons to take extreme care when beginning to play with fire. Fessler mentions that his insurance premium has tripled since the "Great White Incident," a Rhode Island club that went up in flames, where 97 people died as a result of pyrotechnics gone wrong.
Grimm adds, "That's something I could tell anyone who's looking to start this up: Be very careful for our sake and the sake of them working in the future. One small accident and we could all be looked at very differently."
For those interested in learning how to work with fire, Grimm recommends, "Lots of research. There's several Web sites they can go to, they can get video lessons and fire safety lessons. One of them actually even sends you a fire safety DVD with every purchase. And just basically lots of practice before adding fire.
"Learn your tool before you go to light it on fire, never build your tools yourself and be really careful. This is something that is going to catch on, and as long as everybody approaches it with some degree of safety, there should be no problem."
The risk is undeniably part of the appeal.
"If what I did wasn't dangerous," Fessler says, "no one would watch."
Grimm also admits fire's dark allure.
"I guess it's the fun of bridling a destructive force," he says. "You're told growing up that you're not supposed to play with fire, and there's a certain sense of defiance of the elements, defiance of nature. Just the feeling of taking something destructive and turning it into an art form and making it something beautiful is probably (its) biggest appeal."
Playing With Fire
Travis Fessler, Natasha and Grimm all offer classes in the fire arts, as does the Gainanda dance company. For information about lessons and performances, go to pickledbrothers.com, incendiumarts.com, pyrokinetika.com and gaiananda.net.
Scorched Nuts, a four-day, non-profit camping festival devoted to artistic self-expression, will host many fire art events June 14-17 at Hannon's Camp America, 8501 Camden College Corner Road, College Corner, Ohio. Find more info at scorchednuts.com.
Lauren Frederick and Andi Ridder will perform with the Cinnamon Sisters and Tree of Life at 7-9 p.m. June 9 at Gajah Wong, 3935 Spring Grove Ave., Northside. They'll also perform with Dante's Gypsy Circus July 21 during the half-time show at the Cincinnati Rollergirls match at 7:30 p.m. at Cincinnati Gardens. Find ore info at cincygardens.com.
Fessler will be performing throughout the summer at the Kentucky Renaissance Festival in Eminence, Ky., as well as at the July 3 Northside Rock & Roll Carnival. Grimm and his group Incendium will also be performing at the Northside event.
Natasha will be featured at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival in Wet Dream, performed at 7 p.m. May 31, 7 p.m. June 5, 6:30 p.m. June 6 and 6:30 June 7 at Know Theatre, 1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine. Find more info at jammingtalent.com.