BANGOR, Maine — We typically are taught not to play with fire and to extinguish flames, not watch them in amazement. But for Nick Souza, Mike Conley and their fellow fire spinners who make up the locally based Flames of Hope, what may look like playing with fire to some has become a serious and entertaining business.
Once the sun sets and the evening skies settle in, West Market Square in downtown Bangor becomes a stage for the fire enthusiasts who have transformed fire into an art, known as fire poi.
Conley remembers the first time he burned himself practicing art with flames.
“I had a chain that got wrapped around my arm and burned me. I actually still have the scar,” said Conley, who lives in Glenburn. “Fire poi isn’t safe — you have to be pretty practiced.”
Fire poi is a performance of art that consists of a chain that is connected to a ball of wick which is then set into a bucket of fuel. Once dipped in fuel the chain and wick are put into another empty bucket, typically a paint bucket known as a spin bucket, which has a handle. The performer takes the handle of the bucket and uses a repeated circular motion for about a minute to get the excess fuel off the wick. Then the ball is lit and the performance begins.
Conley said it was easy to learn the basic building blocks of the art, but with lots of practice comes more finesse.
“I had friends that did it. I picked it up after about two to three months.”
Souza has been practicing fire poi for roughly the past two years, and remembers the first time he lit himself on fire while practicing.
“I ended up catching my leg on fire. I pretty much dipped my wick into the fuel can and on my way up to start spinning the fuel hit my leg and caught fire,” said the Bangor man.
The two said they do not take any risks and always have a spotter, fire blanket and fire extinguisher on hand at all times. They also like to wear hooded sweatshirts and keep their hair short so no loose strands will catch on fire.
Their performances are like an interpretive dance. They just go with whatever music is playing and start spinning. The average spin lasts for about three to four minutes.
“It depends on how much fuel you have on your wick, how thick your wick is and how fast you are spinning,” Conley said. “If you spin faster, then your wick will go out sooner.”
The duo do not only enjoys making fire into art, but they also like to give back to the local community.
“When I was 18 I tried to start a charity called Project Hope … It was supposed to be an all you can eat buffet for the needy at the red church [on Union St. in Bangor] but I didn’t have the funding for it,” said Souza.
Now, at age 22, Souza has started a new organization — Flames of Hope — blending his love of fire poi and his desire to give back. There is a national organization called Flames of Hope with which they have no affiliation, and the technical trademark of their group is Flames of Hope Maine but they prefer to be known as simply Flames of Hope.
Souza and Conley are the group’s main members, but say that several others who perform other varieties of fire art join them during their weekly spins in Bangor, including several females who practice fire hula hooping.
Fire hula hooping consists of a typical hula hoop that has been altered to have roughly eight wicks attached around the rim then each wick is dipped into the fuel and then lit. They spin the hoop around themselves from their waist to their arms and even their legs.
Flames of Hope is scheduled to make its official debut at downtown Bangor’s Oktoberfest, noon-1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, in West Market Square. This will be the group’s first fundraising event. They will be holding a food drive and all of the food will be donated to Manna Ministries which is a organization that provides the needy with basic comforts.
“We perform in downtown and people would come up to us saying they’d give us money for that … that’s when we got a tip jar,” said Conley.
That is when they decided they could help people in a way that was fun and enjoyable for themselves and would not need a lot of funding. If people do not have a food item to donate at Oktoberfest then they can put their spare change in the tip jar which will also be donated to Manna Ministries.
The first time both of them performed they encountered the jitters and anxiety that would be expected, particularly with a dangerous performance.
“[The] first time I was very self conscious,” Conley said. “You worry about everything — from the people watching you, to catching something on fire, to even catching yourself on fire. You don’t want to mess up.”
“I was so afraid that I was going to mess up,” said Souza.
“You just got to go with it,” said Conley.
The pair have high aspirations for Flames of Hope. They hope to have a successful day at Bangor’s Oktoberfest and raise awareness of their cause and show people that fire can be played with in a safe way.
And safety is key. So far, neither young man has made a trip to the emergency room for a fire-related injury. Yet they do joke about where their tips go.
“All the money that is donated to us in our tip jars goes to help people … or the hospital bills,” said Conley.