Competitors six to 17 years old came from across the Pacific and the United States to compete in the junior and intermediate divisions before a panel of seven judges experienced in fireknife dancing on May 10 at the Polynesian Cultural Center. According to one of the emcees, dancers are graded on their entrance, exit, maintaining speed, and their variation of traditional and creative motions.
The emcee said many of the local contestants already work as professional fireknife dancers at PCC or resorts around the island. This year also marks the first time junior and intermediate contestants were required to perform with double blades and a portion when the blades are hooked together.
Results are as follows:
Champion: Matagi Lilo of Ewa Beach, Hawaii
1st runner-up: Vincent Galeai of Laie, Hawaii
2nd runner-up: Isa’ako Milford of Laie, Hawaii
Champion: Mose Lilo of Laie, Hawaii
1st runner-up: Haukea Moua of Papeete, Tahiti
2nd runner-up: Mamalu Lilo of Ewa Beach, Hawaii
Despite fireknife’s position as a traditional male Samoan dance, the practice is has received a growing fanbase amongst other islands of the Pacific and women in recent years. This year’s championship had many Tahitian competitors.
Heremoana Buchin, a chaperone with the Tahitian team, said watching his son compete on the world stage “was a dream come true.” This time last year, he explained, they were back home watching the competition when his son decided he wanted to enter.
Since then, like other Tahitian families, Buchin said he’d been working overtime to save money for the trip. “We want to bring some more ‘mana’ for Tahiti,” he explained, noting the lack of Tahitian representation amongst the crowds gathered at PCC.
Over the last few years, he continued, the number of fireknife schools in Tahiti has increased. “It’s becoming popular,” Buchin explained. “You can feel [fireknife] calling to you.”
According to Buchin, the experience is about cultural exchange just as much as it is about competition. “We’re here to play and learn, and share that Tahiti can do [fireknife] too. We just hope every Tahitian are behind us.”
Out of the 22 competitors in the junior and intermediate divisions, three were female, aligning with the reintroduction of the female senior division. Local junior competitor, Hina Hafoka, said she originally considered fireknife to be “a boy’s thing, but then I realized girls could do it too.” She added she looks up to Jerry, the senior division female champion, as a role model.
Hina’s father, Spencer Hafoka, said he was nervous to see his daughter compete, but he was very proud. He explained that one day Hina just started spinning a fireknife and a local instructor invited her into his class. “I knew she was in good hands,” Hafoka commented. “He’s committed to supporting her the best he can in her newfound passion.”
The opportunities and dangers of fireknife
Julienne Filimaua, a PCC first aid technician from Wisconsin whose husband is a professional fireknife dancer, said, “They’re tough kids. You know a fireknife dancer because they have lines over their hands, arms, and backs, from either catching the blade or being burned by the flames. The thing is though, they don’t mind.”
She continued by explaining when people are burned, they can’t be afraid of the fire because they’ll eventually get burned worse. “You’ll see more burns during these events then if they were practicing at home because of the anxiety associated with the event.”
The number one rule of fireknife, according to local nine year-old competitior Ali’i Joe Milford, is to “stay safe and always practice without fire first.”
Junior Division Champion Mose Lilo from Oahu said he was more nervous of performing then being burned on stage. He added the secret to a safe and successful performance is carefully considering every movement during the set.
Intermediate competitor Kekai Nielsen also explained that along with travel, community and income, fireknife dancing allows him to learn about the culture and history of the dance.
Writer: J. Eston Dunn