Photo by James Norton
Bright circles of light spin around Valentina Martin's body. The flames move from her head to her knees and back up as she throws her hands into and out of the hoops that surround her. This is just a regular night of work for Martin, a professional fire hooper who goes by the name Unity.
Fire hooping, essentially fancy hula hooping with flaming hoops, is just one type of fire play. There are also fire staffs, double staffs, swords, fans, fingers and poi. Poi is probably the most well known to an outsider. Those kids in patchwork pants with feathers in their hair, spinning balls on chains at the beach? They're spinning unlit poi.
Unity, though, is not just another one of those kids.
“This is my profession,” she says. “It takes a lot of dedication, commitment and self-motivation to actually make money from this.”
She has made it happen. Unity makes hoops and sells them, teaches hooping classes at various studios and at UCSD and performs with and without fire. She plies her trade at a range of venues, like the W Hotel, Winston's in Ocean Beach and Hillcrest club The Brass Rail, as well as at private parties and festivals. She's also appeared on E! Entertainment Network and Showtime and started her own performance troupe, The Hoop Unit.
Seeing her perform is at turns awe-inspiring and nerve-wracking. Her motions are as precise as a gymnast and as languid and sensual as a belly dancer. For Unity, this is instinctive. Her mother, Leela, runs a belly-dancing troupe in L.A., and Unity started performing publicly with her mom when she was 14 years old.
“Performing really formed my identity,” she says. “It all happened at such a young stage of my development as a woman.”
As one might expect, being a professional fire hooper isn't without peril.
“I've burnt my hands so bad,” she says—she has the scars to prove it—“and your hand is the most sensitive spot.” She always wears cotton clothing—synthetic cloth melts right onto your skin, she explains.
For fire performers of Unity's caliber, the event of the year is Burning Man, an end-of-summer festival in Nevada. Roughly 400 people are chosen from around the world to perform with fire for a half hour before a giant wooden man is set ablaze, the climax of the festival. Close to 50,000 people attended Burning Man in 2008, according to event organizers. That's like performing for the entire population of the city of Poway (2008 population estimate: 48,858).
Fire performers form regional groups called conclaves. They practice all year for this one night and then send Burning Man a video of their performance in hopes of being selected.
Scott Wakeham is the leader of the San Diego Fire Conclave, which was selected to perform at the 2009 Burning Man. He organized practices throughout the year with his group of performers, including Unity.
“I lead conclave because I really enjoy seeing someone pick up fire spinning,” Wakeham says, “For the first time, something takes all of their focus. That's what's unique about fire.”
Not only is Wakeham organizing practices, gathering materials and choreographing an act that has to be videotaped and approved; he also has to deal with the problem of finding a practice space. This has been a persistent issue, but it came to a head this year when the San Diego Police Department cracked down on the fire community. Four women were fined in June for hooping with fire at Ocean Beach's Dog Beach. They were all members of Unity's Hoop Unit and claim that the SDPD had previously approved the spot as a place to practice. They are currently fighting the tickets in court, but, for now, they're left without a location.
One day, they'd like for San Diego to have something similar to Los Angeles' weekly Burn Club, Wakeham says. The city of L.A. works with the fire performers, charging them a nominal fee in exchange for an allotted time to practice at a park, with police keeping uninvited spectators at a distance.
The fire community would like to approach the city with a similar plan, but, for the moment, the San Diego Fire Conclave is seeking private land for practices.
“Ideally, we would like to be accepted in the community and give back to it,” Unity says, “either through education or performance.”
Wakeham agrees and notes that the fire-spinning community is growing fast, especially in Southern California.
“There's a lot of fire in this city right now,” he says, “a lot of people that are pretty dedicated.”
Unity and Wakeham are both proud of being called “pyros,” a term Wakeham says doesn't deserve its bad rap. “Firemen are pyros as well; it just means someone who loves fire,” he says. Because fire spinning is unconventional, fire spinners are used to having to explain themselves. They get frustrated when likened to “slackers” and other such terms.
Wakeham easily dismisses the stereotype by listing the day jobs of his performers: geneticist, computer programmer, teacher, video-editor at Scripps Institute and writer. Wakeham himself is a former accountant and is making plans for graduate school.
And for those, like Unity, who are trying to make a career out of hooping and fire alone?
“It's doable,” Wakeham says. “That's a choice anyone can make. You just have to be OK with making your living in pieces for a while.”