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Fire Knife Dancing

Fire knife dancing goes back thousands of years and is believed to have been created in Faleasiu, Upolu Samoa. Not only used as a dance, but also to signal during times of war and colonization as a form of communication at night. The modern fire knife dance has its roots in the ancient Samoan show called “ailao.” This dance is a flashy spectacle of a Samoan warrior's battle skills through clever twirling, throwing, then catching, and dancing with a war club. The ailao could be performed with any war club. Colonial accounts have long-established that women, especially daughters of the high chiefs also performed ailao at the head of ceremonial processions.

During night dances torches were often twirled and swung about by dancers, although a war club was the usual implement used for ailao. Before the introduction of metals, the most common clubs were elaborately carved heirloom clubs called “anava.” These anava were frequently carved with serrated edges and jagged teeth. European and American whalers and traders introduced the natives to a long-handled blubber knife and the hooked cane knife. These tools were assimilated into the Samoan wooden “nifooti.” One common claim is that the word nifooti means “tooth of death” or “dead tooth.”

A Samoan knife dancer named Freddie Letuli, added fire to the knife in 1946. Letuli was performing in San Francisco, California when he noticed a Hindu Fire eater and a little girl with lighted batons. These images gave Freddie an idea. The fire eater loaned him some fuel. Freddie then wrapped some towels around his knife and the fire knife dance was born or reborn as the case may be. Although many commercial performers accomplish the dance with short staffs or unbladed knives, this is not authentic fire knife dancing and is unacceptable by the Samoans, except for training purposes. The knives used by performers in American Samoa are still made of machetes, although they are often dulled for young and inexperienced dancers.

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Loa’a wale lā!