FireDrums 2018

FireDrums is the oldest fire dancing festival in the country, and once again it lives up to its reputation of being a mecca for fire dancing and flow arts. As far as flow oriented events go, it doesn’t get much better than this. More than 500 performers and enthusiasts convene on a hidden mountain valley in the rural Sierra Foothills to the southeast of Sacramento, California for 3 nights of fire dancing, 2 days of learning, and 1 incredible gala show. This year it took place from May 31 – June 3, 2018.

For most attendees, cell reception fades about 45 minutes away from the venue as you ascend into the hills. This was my tenth time at FireDrums, and the fourth time at this venue, so this type of drive into the event is something of a ritual for me. Part of the beauty of this event is tuning out of the outside world and fully immersing ourselves in our combined energy with the intention of learning and training together. Without cell phone and computer screens to distract, communal bonds are formed and strengthened quickly and easily. As you descend into the valley near the end of the one lane dirt road, you arrive at the gate to be greeted with hugs and laughter by a group of volunteers and organizers. Entry was a breeze (as long as you have your ticket!), and we were shown to the parking area. Since it’s a one lane road, the event asks that everyone stay on site for the duration of the weekend, which often is met with a response of “well why would you want to leave this magical place?”.

Unlike some events that sprawl across a huge piece of land, FireDrums feels quite condensed for a camping event. Nothing is a far walk away, with camping on one side of the venue and the workshops and fire space on the other. A mountain stream runs the length of the camp, offering respite from the warm sunny days for those that want to jump in or set their chair in the creek while the cool water runs over their feet. The area around the well shaded creek easily stays 15 to 20 degrees cooler than the open field that holds the fire circle and workshops. Campers try to arrive early to claim their spot under the trees along the creek, lest they be forced to camp in the open fields where the sun likes to goad you out of your tent with its first rays. The pines of the Sierras border the venue on all sides, providing the sense that you are among giants. All across the camp, large pieces of art dot the landscape. It seems that the amount of art grows every year, with new LED light installations around the field, a painting station with free paints and canvases, a bubble booth with loads of ways to make and play with bubbles, and hand painted signs to mark the 15+ workshop areas. The DJ booth in particular is an awesome work of art, a combination of wooden sculpture, string art, and LED lighting.

The days are filled to the brim with classes on nearly every skill toy ranging from buugeng, to fire eating, and dragon staff, but also with discussions on topics like consent, the neuroscience of flow, and psychedelic harm reduction. There were more than 200 opportunities to learn something new or expand on a pre-existing skill. I personally walked away with a lot of new 5 ball juggling tricks(Thank, Matt Hall!), and was re-inspired to try my hand at double contact staff. Regardless of what tool you practice or how skilled you are, there was something there for everyone to learn, which after attending dozens of these types of events is very valuable to me when I am considering what events of the coming year I’d like to attend. For many, the workshops are a huge draw. Instructors are brought in from all over the world, with attendees arriving from as far away as Australia, France, and the Czech Republic, but of course with the majority being from California, Oregon, Washington, and other nearby regions. The games on Saturday deviate slightly from what you might find at a juggling festival, but many staple events are still there including longest self pass and 5 ball endurance. An event favorite is human surfing, where participants stand on the back of another person who then must crawl to the finish line while their partner “surfs” on their back, this always gets the crowd cheering. Saturday evening featured a Firewalking ceremony led once again by juggler and fire artist extraordinaire Kevin Axtell, much to the enjoyment of those who chose to walk on fire. Hundreds of people participate in the Firewalk every year, and it has become a staple of the event.

The Gala featured a number of amazing acts and was MC’ed by Matt Hall. The opener was Cyrille Humen and Von Kim doing a piece from their upcoming show featuring dervish dancing mixed with contact juggling. Enrico SolRiso put on an awesome show with 3 and 4 staff trickery that left everyone cheering, while Adam Lobo put on a fire act of epic proportions featuring a handful of unique tools of his own design. Courtney Cormier rocked 3 batons in a way that FireDrums had never seen before, and Richard Hartnell put on an immense display of contact juggling with 3 balls in motion. The champion of the show in my opinion though was Cary Jerome of San Francisco, who made a wonderfully hilarious act out of 3 different hats giving him special abilities with 3 different tools, at the end of which he put on all three at once and finished with using the hat rack as a dragon staff, which yielded a standing ovation from much of the crowd.

The ultimate result of all that talent in one place though is why most people come to FireDrums; the fire circle. From dusk until dawn, a nearly constant stream of participants wait their turn in line to dip their fire tools in a bottomless can of fuel so that they can enter the fire circle and play. It is normal to see fifty people or more playing with fire at one time at any point in the night, a mind boggling sight for those who have never been. For many impassioned attendees(myself included), the experience has been described as being among their people. I have now come to expect to see new, unique, and one of a kind fire tools every year, including propane poofers strapped to people, volley poi being played over a flaming net, flaming tassels, headdresses, and more. Enthusiasts of a particular tool often will try to coordinate as many people as possible to take over the fire space with just that tool. The sight of 100 dragon staffs being lit at once is really something to behold. From an outside perspective this might look like chaos. While it is true that if you play with fire, you are more likely to be burned, FireDrums has an excellent standard of safety and injuries that require medical attention are practically non-existent. In fact, Flow Arts Institute(the parent organization of FireDrums) operates a fire safety certification program that has elevated the national standard of fire safety at flow festivals in the USA. Fire extinguishers and fire blankets are easily found on all sides of the fire dancing space, and professional medical personnel are on location all throughout the event. No matter how many times you’ve seen fire dancing, there is guaranteed to be something that will blow your mind at least once per hour. Some of us just can’t get enough, and hundreds of people stay up through the night until the light begins to creep in again before retiring. The bubble booth run by Bubbles and Squeak brought out materials to make massive bubbles at dawn on Sunday, and the mood turned into laughter and absurdity as gigantic bubbles were blown across the fire space.

As the event draws to a close, everywhere you look people are hugging and bidding farewell to their faraway friends, some of whom won’t be seen again until next year’s event. For just about everyone though, the drive home is a tired one, with smiles on nearly every face, and memories that keep us coming back.

Article by Exuro Piechocki
Video credits: Richard Hartnell and _ZenRabbit
Photo credits: Lane Lillquist and Surendra Sajwan

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