How I spent three days in Miami spinning fire and trying not to set myself ablaze
Two thoughts occur to me as I make my first attempt to spin fire. Number one, I’m going to die! Why did I sign up for this? Am I out of my freaking mind? This is real fire! Hot fire!
And number two, okay, fine, I’m probably not going to die. But there’s a very good chance I’m going to lose body hair.
Wait, let’s back up.
When I signed up for the three-day master class in the art of fire spinning, taught by an “internationally recognized pro”, the idea sounded unbelievably cool in my head. For one thing, it takes place on a beach in Miami, which for a Midwestern guy like myself is basically an invitation to paradise. I rented an Airbnb in South Beach, a cute one-bedroom with yellows walls just a short walk from the Atlantic, and I instantly feel a sense of calm. There’s something about Miami’s perfect weather—the constant sun and warm, soothing ocean breezes on your face—that changes you on a molecular level. You walk a little slower, you smile at everybody, you stop remembering to check your phone, you think drinking a mojito at noon sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea.
After a full day of lounging in the sun and swimming in the ocean, I headed off to my first Pyro class. There was no mistaking Christian Neira, the instructor. He was the only guy on the beach with dreads, wearing Aladdin pants unironically, and standing next to a big tank of gasoline.
Fire spinning is basically a form of performance art in which things are set on fire—poles, blades, tethered weights—and then twirled around or juggled to create a visual light show. Hopefully the person doing the spinning doesn’t catch on fire too. That’s the general idea.
Neira is in many ways exactly what you’d want from a fire spinning teacher. He’s got a calm, reassuring presence, and he says things like, “There’s a fire spirit in all of us, you’ve just got to let him out.” Imagine Obi-Wan Kenobi traveling in a white van filled with combustibles.
Neira discovered his love of fire relatively late in life. It was just two and a half years ago that the former auto mechanic—who says he “never even played with matches as a kid”—was dared by friends to try fire spinning. He was hooked, and decided then and there to change the course of his life. Now 26 years old, Neira has performed his fire tricks all over the world, from festivals in Costa Rica to cruise ships in the Caribbean.
My first question to him is about body hair. Namely, can I expect to keep it?
Here’s a fun fact: Most of us are walking around with between 100,000 and 150,000 hairs on our head. The average human body has about 5 million hair follicles. I’m a hirsute fella, and because I’m in balmy Miami, most of my follicles are on display. I show up for the first day of Pyro in shorts and a t-shirt, and I have a beard. I feel like a big, fleshy Roman candle, waiting to blow.
When I ask the question to Neira, I’m half-joking. But he doesn’t hesitate to give me the bad news. “That’s probably gonna get a little burned,” he says, gesturing at my leg hair. “You’re gonna lose that.” What about my beard, I ask? He smiles. “Just keep your face away from the fire,” he offers.
It’s like a fire marshal telling you, “Just stay out of burning buildings.”
The other students here for Pyro are all young women—Shanon, Lauren, and Kerri—with vastly different fire experience. This is Lauren’s first time, and she admits that she’s “scared shitless.” Shanon has been spinning fire for a few months, and she’s got the scars to prove it. “Look at what happened when I tried spinning last Friday,” she says, pointing to a scar on her arm the size of a baby fist. “I didn’t even feel it happening. I guess I’m a warrior.”
Neira pulls out some fire props. There’s a Fire Dragon Staff, a long rod with rope-size wicks on each end, and a buugeng, an S-shaped blade that looks like a boomerang designed to slice open jugular veins.
“Find the prop that speaks to you,” Neira tells us. I opt for the regular staff, because it has the fewest pointy edges.
“Everything we do is called flow,” Neira tells us as we practice rolling the unlit props behind our backs. “Flow is defined as being in a concentrated state of focusness.”
I can feel the staff rubbing against my neck, my shoulder blades, my hair—if it were on fire, there’s very little real estate on my body that wouldn’t be monstrously charred.
Neira teaches us fire-spinning moves, with names like Prayer Halo, Devil Roll, the Full Steve, and the Half Steve. I’m not able to do any of these successfully. I don’t know who Steve is, but I’m pretty sure he’s hairless and covered in third degree burns.
By day three, Neira decides we’re finally ready to play with real fire. Before our debut, Neira takes us out to coffee, which strikes me as a curious thing to do when the sun is starting to set. But Neira insists that indulging in extreme amounts of caffeine at night is “the Miami way.” I try my first cortadito, a Cuban coffee that’s 75% espresso, with a side shot of cafecito, which is even more potent espresso. It’s so much caffeine that my heartbeat starts to sound like a pissed-off Tito Puente.
Now that we’re sufficiently awake and alert, we head off to Key Biscayne Bridge. Or rather, a secret spot you get to by scurrying past rats underneath Key Biscayne Bridge to a remote landing known only to locals, which has a breathtaking view of the Miami skyline, and where the cops are apparently lax about amateurs throwing around fire.
Neira gets the party started by demonstrating how to breath fire. The flames are bigger than I expected. Even the experienced fire spinners in the class duck for cover. I feel the heat of the massive flames on my face, and droplets of lamp oil from Neira’s mouth, which thankfully aren’t on fire, splatter against my chest.
“You put the fuel in the bottom of your mouth, and breathe over it,” Neira explains. “That little mist you create is what gets ignited. It’s super safe, so we can get really close to the flame.”
He plays down the danger, but I can see how close the fire gets to his chin, and how he jumps back like he’s been punched by a fist made of flames. The fact that his lips aren’t permanently blackened with soot is a miracle.
Shanon volunteers to be next to light up. She’s been practicing with lotus-shaped fire fans, and tonight she wants to get more adventurous with them. In her hands, they look like fiery brass knuckles, and it’s amazing that her tiny forearms aren’t engulfed in flames.
Neira hands a staff to Lauren, who’s trying not to look terrified, and ignites both ends. Her eyes get wide as saucers, and for a second it seems she might throw the smoldering pole back at him and run off screaming. But she slowly starts to twist her wrists, and the flames lick at the sky in mesmerizing patterns. She can’t believe it. “Am I really doing this?” she asks.
“Who’s next?” Neira says, looking directly at me.
I approach him hesitantly. “I guess if it goes wrong,” I say, laughing, “I can always jump in the ocean.”
Neira glances at the dark water and shakes his head. “No, I wouldn’t do that,” he says. “Too many sharks.”
The others agree. “Yeah,” says Shanon. “That water is filled with tiger sharks.”
“Or nurse sharks,” Neira adds. “There are probably mostly nurse sharks in there. But they won’t bite you.”
“Probably,” says Lauren.
“I wouldn’t chance it,” says Neira.
So those are my choices. Stay on land and get burned to a crisp. Or jump into the ocean, just a few feet away, and get eaten by sharks.
Neira can sense my trepidation. He tries to reassure me by telling me about a Pyro student from just last week, who had “no hand-eye coordination whatsoever,” but managed to spin fire without a single trip to the ER. He also tells me about his ten year old nephew, who is already an expert fire spinner. “He’s ten years old, dude,” Neira says.
Neira lights up both ends of my staff and hands it to me. I hold it like it’s a stick used to pick up dog poop. As Neira waits for me to do something with the fire other than stand there, he tells a story about his first “freedom burn” at Burning Man. A rite of passage for seasoned Burners, a freedom burn involves spinning fire while naked, and throwing the hot embers between your legs.
“The fire got close, bro,” Neira says with a laugh. “It was awesome, dude.”
I suddenly don’t feel quite so cautious about the blazing staff in my hands, if only because it’s nowhere near my genitals. I start to spin it—not with any noticeable skill, but definitely with a finesse not expected from a man who’s never wielded anything more dangerous than a sparkler.
A small gaggle of tourists has gathered near the beach, and they’re all watching us, taking pictures with their phones. This is a remarkable turn of events. I’m quite literally the lamest fire spinner of all time—my artistry with fire is as impressive as a toddler trying to eat apple sauce—but these tourists are looking at me like I’m a Cirque du Soleil performer.
Neira is behind me, whispering advice. “The faster the fire moves, the less it can burn you,” he tells me. “Just keep twisting your arms and you’ll be okay.” This seems counter-intuitive—the more I move, the bigger the flames get—but who am I to argue with a man in Aladdin pants who breathes fire like it’s no big deal?
It’s terrifying at first. Especially when you smell the crackle of your arm hairs. But then you realize that it probably isn’t going to be the end of you, and it becomes strangely calming. “It’s a form of meditation,” Neira says, just as I’m starting to realize what he means. “If you’re doing this right, all of your problems disappear. All you’re focused on is what you’re doing right now, at this moment.”
I totally get it now. As I’m kind of spinning fire, it feels like I’m gazing into a campfire, watching the flames flicker and feeling a welcome sense of calm wash over me.
“Dude, I think you’re a little on fire,” Neira tells me.
I’m not sure what he means. Is he saying this as an encouraging “You’re doing such a good job, you’re on fire”? Or a literal “You are actually on fire, your flesh is currently burning, you need water immediately”?
“There’s smoke coming out of your beard,” Neira tells me.
“Groovy,” I tell him, with a big, blissful smile.
He might be right. I can smell the distinctive odor of scorched hair coming from my face. But whatever. I’m brandishing flames like a Greek god, and the glorious Miami skyline is in the distance, so I don’t really mind.