History – A Warrior's Tradition

pulefanoRetired PCC Director of Cultural Islands, Pulefano Galea'i — the originator of the Center's Samoan World Fire Knife Dance Competition and accompanying cultural arts festival as well as an outstanding knife dancer in his youth — explains the Samoan fireknife dance ('ailao afi) is a relatively modern innovation on ancient gestures of victory in battle that used a hand-held wooden weapon, the nifo oti or "deadly tooth."

"Old Samoan traditions say warriors would use the relatively lightweight nifo oti like a hacking sword," Galea'i says, noting that some of these wooden swords or clubs had boar tusks or shark teeth attached, while others had sharp "teeth" carved into the edges that could do serious damage to an enemy in close combat.

Galea'i, who has been involved with all of the PCC World Fireknife Championship, explains the nifo oti was eventually combined with another Samoan weapon, the lave or hook, which was used to snare various body parts of an enemy.

In more modern times after village, tribal and interisland warfare faded into history, the nifo oti has become an important element in the Samoan ta'alolo or gift-giving procession that honors special visitors: Custom now demands in the most formal occasions that the ornately decorated manaia or "prince" and taupo or "princess," each carrying and twirling nifo oti, should lead ta'alolo processions.

Do the Dancers Ever Get Burned?

alex2Yes. That's real fire and despite all their skill and practice it's not only common for the dancers to get burned, but also cut by the knives  . . . which adds an extra element of danger and daring to their routines. Of course, most dancers have also conditioned themselves to working closely with the heat and flames.

By the way, there's no trick or extra protection involved in the fireknife movement where some dancers put the flames on the soles of their feet: Such ability comes from walking barefoot for years and developing thick calluses on the feet. Even so, it's still very hot.