The Modern Fireknife Dance

fireknife dancerOver the years young Samoans developed the twirling motions into its own art form and also stylized the knife, adding such touches as using two and even three knives simultaneously with chrome blades and reshaping the hook. But perhaps the most exciting change came in 1946 when a young Samoan man entertaining in San Francisco became the "father" of modern Samoan fireknife dancing when he added flaming pads to each end of the nifo oti:

Uluao Letuli from Nuuuli, American Samoa — who was given the nickname "Freddie" because he could dance like Fred Astaire, and would later be known formally as Paramount Chief Letuli Olo Misilagi — said in his history he was inspired by both a Hindu fire eater and a baton twirler to add fire to the knife, dramatically increasing the level of courage and skill required to perform the already difficult dance.

To add fire to the knives, many dancers today use a plain cotton towel that is wired to the blade and thoroughly soaked in white gasoline or naphtha (some dancers also use lighter fluid).

His exciting dance was an immediate hit, and Chief Letuli went on to perform for many years and also teach all the early fireknife dancers, including the Polynesian Cultural Center's own retired Director of Cultural Islands, Pulefano Galea'i, who originated the PCC's annual World Fire Knife Dance Competition in 1993.

Fire Knife Dance Movements

In addition to how skillfully and dramatically dancers twirl their nifo oti, fireknife dance judges are also looking for several traditional movements or actions:

The mo'emo'e or running movements, which traditionally indicated victory in battle; foot stamping — a sign of challenge or intimidation; and the gego or head movements, which warriors used to confuse their enemies. Other movements or olioli which anciently were used to distract enemies included rolling the knife around the neck, through the legs and around the ankles, and around the back, as well as folifoli or movements leading up to a strike.

More recently dancers have increased the speed of twirling significantly and also included a wide variety of tumbling and baton twirling movements that add to the overall impact of the fireknife dance.