The 25th Annual World Fireknife Final Tournament, hosted by the Polynesian Cultural Center on May 13, attracted more than 2,400 students and visitors from all around the world, according to event organizers. The event showcased fireknife performances by three warriors from Florida, Samoa, and Hawaii.
The competition began on May 11, and participants were dwindled down to finalists fighting for the championship title. The Samoan dancer covered in champion glory, Falaniko Penesa, took home this year’s title and said this was his third time participating in a tournament like this.
Coming to Hawaii and competing was very enjoyable, said Penesa, because he met warriors from around the globe. Penesa said he started to practice fireknife dancing when he was about 11 years old, and his passion for sharing his culture has been his driving force.
“This is a part of my culture, so I really want to be a champion. That’s why I’ve always been practicing and training very hard,” he said.
To compete against other warriors, he said he had been “trying new moves and was being creative,” such as a double throw in his knife technique. Penesa said, who works as a fireknife dancer at the Hong Kong Disneyland. “Thank you for everyone’s support and especially my family.”
The second-place winner, Mikaele Oloa of Hawaii, said he was able to “stay calm and relax through prayer” throughout his performance.
When talking about his standpoint on fireknife dancing, he said, “I guess the main thing that I’ve been trying to [accomplish every year] is trying to stay savage and warrior. We gotta remember that this is the Samoan warrior dance. So, we gotta try to portray the best of the Samoan warrior.”
Although he wasn’t the champion title this year, Oloa said he is determined to move forward with faith. “[I will] pray more, train more, and just keep going. You never know how the judges will judge and score. The only thing you can do is just do your best and dedicate all you do to God.”
A local attendee, Tamauni Nagy, said he came to support Oloa during the event. He said, “The fire was strong. That’s the main part. I got to watch my friend Mikaele do his thing.”
Nagy said he also does fireknife dancing and mat participate in a tournament in the future. He said, “I wouldn’t mind competing, maybe next year. Hopefully, I will make it to the final and compete on the stage.”
When the fireknife tournament began and the dancers started performing, some of the audience members screamed, and other audience members seemed stunned by the performance they were watching.
After the combined fireknife and evening show, BYU-Hawaii student, Deedra Ramachandram, a sophomore graphic design major from Malaysia, said she really enjoyed her first fireknife show experience.
She stated, “Pretty much everything about it was really good because you got to see them do more tricks than [they usually] do in the regular night show.” She said she especially liked the part where dancers hooked all of the knives together and spun them around.
“This is something you don’t want to miss because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m just glad I was able to watch it,” she said.
There were seven judges in the tournament evaluating the technique of the dancers. Florida-based judge Cyril Schwenke said, “It was close, tough, and exciting. There are a lot of things to be considered [including] their stamina, the use of the stage, the motion, creativity, and all of the exciting things [such as] the throw. That’s how I judge and grade the performance of the dancers.” Schwenke said it was difficult to evaluate the performances due to time limitations.
According to the PCC, the fireknife tournament started in 1993 by Pulefano Galeai from Samoa to further the growth of the PCC.
Galeai said, “The whole idea is to learn the Samoan fire dance and have more understanding of their culture.” He said he has been very grateful and satisfied to see how much the warriors “have been getting better and better” throughout the years. “We got competitors from Japan and Australia. Now the whole world is turning to it.” Galaei said competition also brings people from all nations together.
Sielu Avea, the World Fireknife inaugural Champion, said he would never forget the night he was fire dancing at the Night Show for PCC when a cast member threw him a fireknife from the mountain on stage to him on the floor.
“The first knife came really fast, switched, and the hook came last,” he said. The hook on the knife pierced the center of his palm and came out the back of his hand. “I pulled it out really hard and screamed. I yelled at him to throw the other knife. Then I kept going. The crowd was really silent at that time because there we a lot of blood all over me. But the show must go on!” Avea laughed when he said he was thankful that an ambulance was already waiting for him when he got off stage.
Avea said the heart of fireknife dancing comes from mana or the spirit and energy within a person. “When I talk about mana, I mean perform from your heart. When you do everything from your heart, the feeling will go far and touch other people through your performance.”
Training as a fireknife dancer teaches a person perseverance and strength, said Avea. Getting hurt and getting burned is all a part of the experience. It gives a person the opportunity to improve. “If I get hit by the knife, it teaches me I need to get up and better myself,” he said.
Oloa said it’s important to learn the origins of fireknife. “There is a lot of fancy moves nowadays. Before you learn all those crazy motions, you have to learn the basics and where it came from.”
The fireknife is based off of the traditional weapon of the princess of Samoa, called the Nifo Oti. On one end of the knife is a hook made of a tooth, which is where it gets its name. “Nifo Oti” translates to English as “Tooth of Death.”
Oloa said, “In the old days when they would go to war, they would cut the enemy's head off and put the head on the hook. Then they would spin it. That is where they got the spinning for the knife dance.”
Despite the evolving style of dance, Galeai said he is impressed with the original work of the dancers. “They learn to be show people and earn a living.” He said fire dancers he knows have created successful careers out of the art working in places such as Disneyland, Cirque Du Soleil and other entertainment venues.
NOTE: This story's online publishing was delayed because it was featured in the June 2017 print issue.