On a cold winter evening in the backyard of a Bushwick apartment building padded with rubber tiles, six women, each holding flaming fans, dance in unison a few feet apart from each other. Observed from above, they form the shape of a diamond.
“Sometimes the neighbors upstairs throw parties and watch from the balcony,” says Tara McManus a 33-year-old fire instructor at The Floasis studio in Bushwick.
“They come outside just for us,” McManus tells the five women, all her students learning how to perform with fire.
McManus, the daughter of a fire welder, learned to forge using fire at age 12, and years later she leveraged her father’s craft into an art form and a career.
“My dad used to tie bleach bottles up to a basketball hoop and set them on fire because they made an awesome sound,” McManus says. “I grew up around the reckless entertaining aspect of fire, but now I’m on the opposite wavelength of having to [be] harsh [to] everybody in order to keep this going.”
Until the start of 2016, most fire performing in New York City operated underground in a legal gray area.
The FDNY started issuing licenses for fire performers that allow them to perform and oversee unlicensed performers. McManus worked with the FDNY on the licensing program.
At studios like The Floasis, which offer a variety of performing and martial arts classes (including juggling and rope dart classes), students can learn the art of fire poi, which involves swinging lit tether weights, dancing with burning fans, hula hooping, fire breathing and more.
Outside of The Floasis, McManus oversees unlicensed fire performers at the Metropolitan Opera, a new job for her that has become possible because of the new licensing program.
Claire Smith, a veteran fire instructor who goes by the performer name Claire de Luxe from Bushwick, expects that the new licensing will attract newcomers to the art and pave the way for opportunities.
“I’m hoping that the general public will accept it ... as a prominent art form that can be done anywhere if the right precautions are followed,” Smith says.