When Jeralee Galeai was 10 years old, she picked up a stick and wanted to practice fireknife dancing, or siva afi, with her older cousins. She said her father, David Galeai, who was teaching them, saw her potential and started working with her.
One day while at practice, she said she threw the knife in the air and it hooked onto her shirt on the way back down. She was running with the fireknife on her shirt when her dad helped her remove it and then said, “No more fire for you.”
She said she was initially saddened by her father’s comment, but then felt determined. “I said, ‘No, I will keep doing it.’ My dad saw my drive, and from there he kept pushing me.”
While her father initially thought fireknife dancing may not be for her, she said, “I showed him I wanted to do it, and he hasn’t given up on me since. He’s played a really big part in where I am at today. He’s actually the whole reason why.”
Jeralee Galeai, a junior majoring in business finance, is originally from the Cook Islands but was raised in Laie. She said she is now the first female soloist fireknife dancer at the Polynesian Cultural Center’s night show.
David Galeai, from Laie, said he is proud of his daughter for her accomplishments because he knows how much hard work and dedication she put in. “It’s an honor to be the first [woman] to do it. It’s a huge accomplishment for her and me.”
He too performs siva afi at the PCC night show. “Fireknife dancing means a lot. It means everything. It’s a way of life and has taught me a lot about myself … [such as] respect, love and hard work.”
Galeai emphasized the excitement he feels because of the journey it took to fireknife dance at the night show. “To not only have Jeralee on that stage but also the twins, Aaliyah and Chandae on that stage … is a proud moment for me.”
Twin sisters, Aaliyah and Chandae Ava, Jeralee Galeai’s cousins, are both freshmen from Laie majoring in business. They both started fire dancing when they were nine years old. Together, they are the first women fireknife dancers to perform a group routine at the PCC night show.
Aaliyah Ava said David Galeai tried to get them to dance at the PCC for almost three years, However, she said this year was the first year the PCC told them, “Let’s see what you guys got.” After they performed for the first time, she said they began performing at the night show every night.
Ava said she is honored to be part of the first group of women fire dancers at PCC. It’s good to know girls can do something mostly men do, she stated. “I’ve heard there’s other girls looking up to us, so I think it’s really good to inspire them to do what they want to do.”
Siva afi is typically known to be for men in the Samoan culture, Ava explained, especially because it is a dangerous art. Jeralee Galeai said they dance with a dull blade and hook attached to a long stick. They wrap the blade in a towel, attach it with ply wire and then soak it with gas before lighting it on fire. The current style of fire dancing was created by her “papa Pulefano,” her grandfather’s brother, who initiated the World Fireknife Competition at PCC, and her grandpa, Tafili Saunoa.
Jeralee Galeai said siva afi is a traditional Samoan war dance, so when she dances, she represents warriors preparing for a fight. “I think it’s a story of telling history and where our ancestors come from.”
A family legacy
Jeralee Galeai said when she was 12, she started fireknife dancing at the luaus at PCC with Chandae and Aaliyah Ava. Now, as the first female fireknife soloist at the night show, she said she enjoys entertaining the crowds by sharing her talents.
Aaliyah and Chandae Ava started dancing together as a group in the night show in 2019, shortly before Jeralee Galeai.
Jeralee Galeai said she typically starts her routine by spinning one knife. She then brings out another knife and dances with two. It is a routine she practices every day until she knows it well. Although, sometimes she will incorporate something new to her routine to switch it up, she added.
“I like to build it up. I’ll start with basic motions and move up the height of my throws or the difficulty of the throws. I set it up in a way I can slowly lead on the audience and build up to the end.”
She said her and her father were happy when they began dancing at night show because fireknife dancing is a big part of their family. “It means so much being that my family, my grandma Vai, created a legacy in her own time. I am very grateful and humbled to be able to carry on that legacy and create history.” She said her grandma Vai was an instructor for the night show and thus created a family tradition for her relatives who fireknife dance.
“Fireknife dancing makes me feel like I’m connected with my ancestors from before because they did what I am doing now. Every performance I do, I always look and am grateful and humbled because I remember where I came from and why I’m there.”
Ava said she learned to fireknife dance because she also wants to continue her family’s legacy.
Jeralee Galeai said her family created a “modern” type of fireknife dancing, combining hip hop with tradition. They sometimes perform this style at gigs, she said.
Where it started
David Galeai said he knew from the start his daughter was a “natural spinner” and all he had to do was be consistent in working with her. He said his favorite moment of teaching her to fireknife dance was the first time she ever danced with fire.
She was 11 the first time she tried siva afi with fire. Jeralee Galeai said, “When I tried it with fire, it was a whole different story because you’re risking yourself getting burned or cut.” However, she said despite the risk, she still enjoyed the exhilaration and wanted to keep doing it over and over again.
Although she has burnt her hair and cut herself, she said the excitement carried her through. “I guess in the moment you don’t really feel it because of adrenaline.”
Jeralee Galeai said having her father as her teacher meant she felt more comfortable asking for help and allowed him to push her more. “I feel like he pushed me much harder. He was hard on me, but it was fun,” she said. “I feel like I was more comfortable because he is my dad, so I could always let him know the motions I was struggling with or [the ones] I didn’t like doing.”
When her and her father first started practicing, she said he would sometimes feel stressed when she didn’t get the motions down. “My best way of learning is when he’s frustrated, because I want to show him I can do it. I tell myself, ‘You think I can’t do it? I’ll do it.’ He knows that and uses it to motivate me and it works.”
Ava said her and her sister learned how to fireknife dance along with Jeralee Galeai and learned from both David Galeai and Pulefano Galeai. She said they taught them throughout the years to prepare them for gigs, parties and weddings aside from the PCC.
Her favorite memory of learning to fireknife dance is learning with her siblings and cousins. She said learning to fireknife dance paved the way to her life now and has allowed her to travel and perform with her family.
So far, Ava said she has been to New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Japan and California to perform vaimatina, or family fireknife dancing. Most of the time they were competing, she said, but when they were in New Zealand, they danced at Polyfest, which is a celebration of their culture.
Jeralee Galeai said she wants to pass her talent of fire dancing on to her children and anyone else who wants to learn. She also wants to travel and see the world. “It would be awesome to perform in different countries. I would love to get the opportunity to share my talents with others on different stages and in different parts of the world.”
She said she would even like to conduct workshops so she can spread the art to younger generations.