Sunday, 12 July 2015

Chapter 88: Playing With Fire

Hold On. Easier said than done sometimes. In  a week where the blog has reached 20,000 hits and Twitter followers passed the first thousand mark, you know where that gets you? Teetering on the verge of burn-out. For anyone who wonders how I juggle three young kids, school and nursery childcare, circus training (theoretically 10 hours a week, of which half is in a circus space), watching shows, writing a blog and handling social media... the answer is: I don't. I am constantly dropping balls and shifting priorities.

So last Sunday morning, I was asking myself what on earth possessed me to chuck another circus skill into this laboriously-balanced equation, and sign up to a fire-eating workshop. Especially as the night before I'd been messaging words of consolation to a friend the night who'd just been scalded very badly, and is now suffering seared skin, blisters, puss, and the entire gruesome works.  Was I being an irresponsible parent? Funnily enough, I also had my own mother, with her seering Scottish sight, on the phone saying "Lucy, I've just seen a wonderful circus called Giffords on "Flog it!". Quite beautiful. They also had some people doing tricks with fire on the programme, but you'd never do anything as stupid as that, would you?!" I winced and bit my lip.  Yet as a child I have vivid memories of Mum's party trick of passing her hand through a candle flame, and snuffing it out with her bare fingers, while I could barely bring myself to douse the dying embers. Maybe on some level handling fire is a rite of passage for me.

Last year my curiosity was reignited when I went to see Midnight's Circus (see Chapter 24), chatting afterwards to one of the performers about his journey into the act, and what the fire felt like.  I then came across The Fire School and "liked" it on Facebook, which in turn - thank you FB - flagged our mutual interest to my friend Rachael.  I met Rachael through Flying Fantastic (see Chapter 53 - that's her shadow on trapeze!), we hooked up virtually and she came along to Circolombia at The Roundhouse (Chapter 74). Then a month or two ago, Rachael mailed me to see if I'd be up for joining her for an introductory workshop. Sure. I said.

Now, before you go along to The Fire School, you have to read the information very carefully. Don't turn up with an empty stomach (that justified the pizza takeaway the night before!) or hungover, with alcohol on your breath (there are probably some muppets out there that need that spelling out to them), and yes, fire breathing is dangerous and the fumes are carcenogenic if ingested.  Wear fabrics made out of natural fibres that don't catch light so quickly, denim and leather are great. If you are thinking of going, read it in full here at

Going through my clothes was a revelation. My jeans are too tight now with all the muscle I have built up in the past year, in my quest to become a circus strongwoman, but as I generally spend my life on the school run in sports gear I hadn't quite that registered before. And the rest of my clothes comprise either designer pieces, collected over the years, or complete tat. Basically, I could see my entire wardrobe going up in smoke. Eventually I found a grey tank (100% cotton), and a more or less comfortable pair of jeans. Still a little low on fuel, I had a quick power nap and then dumped an espresso into a protein shake to go. It tasted disgusting, never again. By the time I got to The Fire School, I was shaking both with caffeine, and the adrenalin of getting there in time in one (inflammable) piece. Then, when it sunk in what we would be doing for the next couple of hours, I shook some more.

The Fire School is located in East Ham in a warehouse that is home to a community of all sorts of artists, and it feels like stepping into a space where anything is possible. The school is the creation of RedSarah, a highly experienced performer for twenty years, and a natural teacher. Rachael and I warmed to Sarah instantly.  She also has a troupe called The Burning Belles, hand-picked from auditions of her experienced students - see an interesting video in which they feature:  "Playing With Fire" (click here) 

We started with the easy part - watching Sarah demonstrate moving fire across her hand and then in turn moving it over ours, to get a feel for how much pressure to apply, and the speed. I say "easy" - it was still a head shift, as there is no prepping of the skin (the first question friends ask), simply an application of physics and logic. But I knew I was in safe hands. There was no risk there. The scary part is when you have to take responsibility for doing it yourself, especially when it comes to eating the flame, which is something Sarah can't help you with. I couldn't have done it without Rachael there beside me, going through the same steps, but with considerably more equanimity, flair and success. Really, there were points when my supporting leg muscles went into involuntery quivers - a release  of biodynamic energy, my old yoga teacher would call that. And that's an interesting thing about learning to play with fire. It is essentially a zen practice that requires utter concentration in the moment, and working with your breath, to the exclusion of all other thoughts. As a distracted mother of three it was deeply relaxing - it felt as though the class welded me back together.  There is also a deep elemental connection, returning to this idea of fire as a rite of passage, moving beyond your fears, that I find incredibly empowering. And there is this carving out of an adult space. Not everything has to be shared with the kids, after all, and I like this idea of reclaiming a space to feel sensual and strong.

At the end we were invited to put all we had learned during the lesson into a sequence to be videoed. I have dithered about sharing my video publicly for while it is a performance, it is also an intimate portrait of where I'm at right now. But then, that's what this blog is all about...

Thank you Sarah and Rachael. You are flaming brilliant. 

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