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Igniting family legacy

Masters of the Flame competition came to the Polynesian Cultural Center for employees on their own fireknife journeys

A woman lunges with her back arm up at an angle and her other arm holding a fireknife
Alesha Galeai at the Masters of the Flame fireknife competition for PCC employees.
Photo by Yui Leung

Pulefano Galeai founded the World Fireknife Competition in 1992. His son, David Galeai, followed in his footsteps and created Masters of the Flame. David Galeai said he always dreamt of creating a platform for young dancers to showcase their fireknife skills. Masters of the Flame, the Polynesian Cultural Center employee fireknife competition, is one of the fruits of his hard work.

a man knees with a fireknife held in one of his knees while he points to the side and looks at the camera.
One of the Masters of the Flame competitors.
Photo by Yui Leung

Galeai said when he was working at PCC there weren’t any platforms for their employees to compete in. When he joined the World Fire Championship for the first time, he didn’t have prior experience and didn’t know what to expect. Fortunately, he said, winning three championships helped him be well-grounded and able to create and host a fireknife competition. He said he gladly worked to build Masters of the Flame these past five years for PCC employees.

A boy spins a fireknife low to the ground as he looks at the camera.
Masters of the Flame competitors train for months before the event, says organizers.
Photo by Yui Leung

On Feb 21, the PCC hosted its fifth Masters of the Flame with three categories: Senior Single Division, Senior Double Division and Women’s Division. Maliana Ava, the director of the Masters of Flame, said, “This is also the first season for the women's competition.”

A man stands and holds a fireknife in front of him in one hand.
Competitors in the Masters of the Flame contest is a great warm up to taking part in the World Fireknife Championship, says fireknife mentors.
Photo by Yui Leung

The warrior presence

Galeai obtained more love for fireknife as he found the innate meaning of fire, he said. “In Polynesia, fire is everything. It’s part of who we are. It means life, but it also means destruction if we don’t take care of it,” he explained. He said he always felt mesmerized every time he saw dancers handling fireknives. As part of a culture that is closely attached to his heart, performing a fireknife dance is a beautiful way to take care of and respect it, he said. Ava said, “Not everyone can control the fire,” it takes an inner warrior, courage, time and dedication to do it, said Ava.

Alesha Galeai, the first winner of the Women’s Division from Laie, said her most memorable moment was maintaining her warrior presence on stage, even during breaks from spinning her fireknife. She explained, “For me, how you present yourself to the audience is what makes you a warrior.”

A man dancing fireknife touches the flames on his stick to his tongue with his head tilted back in a pose on stage.
Learning how to handle and touch the fire is learned over time, says fireknife dancers.
Photo by Yui Leung

The winner of the senior single and double divisions, Alexander Galeai, recalled his performance memories, saying the cheers projected from the audience and the loud and steady drum rhythm that echoes from the drummers are amazing, but they can be a source of distraction. Because of the possible hazards of performing with fire, he said had to control himself to detach from the distractions. “I know you can’t feel fine dancing without the drumbeats as your music, but the real beats come from your heart,” he said. “When you have a fireknife in your hands, and the drumbeats within your heart, it blocks you from any kind of distractions. Then you start to feel the power, energy and warrior spirit.”

Alesha Galeai said, “I think the audience needs to realize that each performer is a true warrior because they’ve [trained] hard and still managed to do their best.”

The expression stage

Ava said half the dancers started using fire a couple of months after they learned the basic dance and that categorized them as beginners. She said the competition means a lot to the dancers because the experience will boost their confidence for something bigger. She said, “I hope from this competition, they will want to join the world championship.”

a man dancing fireknife sweeps the flames between his legs with his feet placed far apart in a lung stance.
Cultivating a warrior mentality is part of what participants do to compete in the Masters of the Flame competition.
Photo by Yui Leung

Alesha Galeai explained the hardest part of the preparation is when practicing with fire. She said, “I am still afraid of the fire. Every time I burn myself I get more and more nervous to keep practicing, but I tried to push through it.” Her confidence escalated as she dedicated more time to practice, recognized mistakes and corrected the wrong movements over time. She explained her fear of touching the fire caused her to pick up the speed because it saved her from being burned severely. She said, “It is totally a different mindset, being on a single stage like this helped me to be more cautious about every part of my body and how I will fit in and look for the judges.”

Alexander said many of his family members have been crowned as fireknife dancers in the World Fireknife Championships and he is committed to continuing their legacy. “Masters of Flame is very helpful to achieve that goal,” he said.

a woman dancing fireknife holds the flames in front of her with both ends of the staff alight.
Organizer Maliana Ava says this was the first year their was a women's i in the Masters of the Flame competition.
Photo by Yui Leung

Not everyone feels ready for bigger competition, but he said this competition was beneficial because it pushed dancers' abilities to their limit. “Masters of the Flame helps us stay active, physically strong and mentally awake to the ultimate day of competition,” he said.