As the light fades over a wide, flat field off Northwest 21st Avenue, members of a Portland dance troupe stand as motionless as statues. On cue, one dancer weaves through the performers, lighting staffs and chains on fire with a small blowtorch. As their instruments flare up, the dancers begin twirling and spinning frenetically, maneuvering amid the heat and flame. Fuel fumes waft dizzyingly across the night. "You have 20 minutes to burn," announces Shireen Press, the night's coordinator. Rehearsal has begun.

Two dozen dancers gathered on Sunday for one last practice before this week's performance at Burning Man, the rowdy arts festival that takes place yearly in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. The local troupe, which calls itself the Portland Conclave, is one of 28 fire-dancing groups scheduled to perform there. Back in 1986, 80 people journeyed to the desert to attend the first Burning Man; this year, organizers say they are expecting more than 30,000 people from around the world.

As Burning Man's attendance grows, so does Portland's fascination with fire arts. Fire dancing is an elegant marriage of danger and skill, local performers say, incorporating a variety of props such as staffs, whips and poi, handheld chains with Kevlar wicks on one end. Some artists breathe or eat fire, while others swing and toss flaming tools while dancing.

By employing circus elements, yogic postures, tai chi, breakdancing and even vaudevillian maneuvers, local fire dancers are part of a nationwide movement that is changing an ancient art into something decidedly more modern.

"Challenging yourself with fire can be incredibly spiritual," says Sapphire, a dancer who performs at Dante's, Stephanos and other Portland nightclubs. "When I'm dancing, nothing else matters."

In the last decade, fire dancing, or "burning," has become more popular here, where dancers perform at venues ranging from nightclubs to the office Christmas party. It's hard to estimate just how many locals dance with fire, but one local organizer, Debra Ochoa, claims she has more than 100 subscribers to the Internet discussion list she maintains for fire dancers. Another indication of interest is, a Portland website devoted to fire arts, which can receive up to 60,000 hits per month.

Observers say the attraction of making art with flames is primal. "It's like anything else that carries with it a certain amount of danger," says Don Porth, director of public education for the Portland Fire Department. "It goes back to our first experience with our first birthday candle."

Because of the inherent danger, Portland performers have collaborated with the fire department to create safety rules. In May 2001, their efforts created a voluntary permit process for dancers, as well as a guide that outlines safety rules for fire performances. The guide specifies requisite clothing, fuels and safety tools--which include, just as you might expect, fire extinguishers, wet towels and buckets of water.

But no matter how many safety precautions dancers follow, fire will always remain unpredictable. That very danger is one of the draws for spectators, says Gary Talbot, a retired nurse who now makes his living from fire dancing. "When people go to see a fire show, they want to see someone get burned. There's a kind of morbid curiosity."

Talbot, who goes by the name of Peach, understands that kind of curiosity. He once set his braided goatee aflame. In one performance last winter, he was spinning fire when a flaming bolt got caught on the poi's nylon handle, burning a permanent scar onto his right index finger.

Dancers agree that the elation of the flame arts outweighs the potential danger. "It hurts, but it's wonderful," says Indigo Teiwes, the founder of the Inflammable Divas, who works as an environmental research analyst. "It has a life of its own. When I feel the heat and hear the roar of the fire spinning around me, it takes me to a different plane."

Pele's Element, a dance troupe that offers fire classes for beginners and expert dancers, emphasizes safety practices as well as dance moves, according to Press, a co-founder of the group. "We are trained, and we are professional," says Press, who works as a nanny. Her group has earned international attention for its intricate choreography and was recently selected to appear on Circles of Light 4, a DVD compiled by the prominent fire-dancing website that showcases some of the finest fire troupes worldwide.

For Peach, who recovered last year from cancer, fire performance has benefits beyond the challenge of its artistry. "Last year was a bad year," he says, when talking about his disease. "But I often envisioned the fire burning away the cancer's energy. For me, fire is healing. It's a cathartic experience."
Altered Productions:
Inflammable Divas:
Sati Fire Collective:
Temple of Prometheus:
Tim McAvoy, Burning Torch metal arts: 309-7028