History – A warrior’s Tradition
The Samoan fireknife dance (‘ailao afi) as a relatively modern interpretation taken from ancient gestures of victory in battle using the nifo oti or “deadly tooth,” the hand-held wooden weapon. The late Pulefano Galea’I, previous PCC Director of Cultural Islands and the originator of the Center’s Samoan World Fireknife Dance Competition and Cultural Arts Festival, explained the intricacies of the Fireknife.
“Old Samoan traditions state that warriors would use the relatively lightweight nifo oti like a hacking sword,” Galea’i noted that some of these wooden swords or clubs had boar tusks or shark teeth attached, while others had sharp “teeth” carved into the edges that could do serious damage to an enemy in close combat.
Galea’i, an outstanding knife dancer in his youth who passed away in 2017, was involved with the PCC World Fireknife Championship has been involved with our Fireknife competition from its’ inception. He explained that the nifo oti was eventually combined with another Samoan weapon, the lave or hook, which was used to snare various body parts of an enemy.
In more modern times after village, tribal and interisland warfare faded into history, the nifo oti has become an important element in the Samoan ta’alolo or gift-giving procession that honors special visitors. Custom now demands in the most formal occasions that the ornately decorated manaia or “prince” and taupo or “princess” should lead ta’alolo processions, each carrying and twirling nifo oti,.
Do the Dancers Ever Get Burned?
Yes. That’s real fire and despite all their skill and practice it’s not only common for the dancers to get burned, but also cut by the knives . . . which adds an extra element of danger and daring to their routines. Of course, most dancers have also conditioned themselves to working closely with the heat and flames.
By the way, there’s no trick or extra protection involved in the fireknife movement where some dancers put the flames on the soles of their feet: Such ability comes from walking barefoot for years and developing thick calluses on the feet. Even so, it’s still very hot.
The Modern Fireknife Dance
Over the years, young Samoans developed the twirling motions into its own art form and also stylized the knife, adding such touches as using two and even three knives simultaneously with chrome blades and a reshaped the hook. Perhaps the most exciting change came in 1946 when a young Samoan man entertaining in San Francisco became the “father” of modern Samoan fireknife dancing when he added flaming pads to each end of the nifo oti.
Uluao Letuli, from Nuuuli, American Samoa, (who was given the nickname “Freddie” because he could dance like Fred Astaire, and would later be known formally as Paramount Chief Letuli Olo Misilagi) said in his history he was inspired by both a Hindu fire eater and a baton twirler to add fire to the knife, dramatically increasing the level of courage and skill required to perform the already difficult dance.
To add fire to the knives, many dancers today use a plain cotton towel that is wired to the blade and thoroughly soaked in white gasoline or naphtha (some dancers also use lighter fluid).
His exciting dance was an immediate hit, and Chief Letuli went on to perform for many years and also teach all the early fireknife dancers, including the Polynesian Cultural Center’s own former Director of Cultural Islands, Pulefano Galea’i, who originated the PCC’s annual World Fire Knife Dance Competition in 1993.
Fire Knife Dance Movements
In addition to how skillfully and dramatically dancers twirl their nifo oti, fireknife dance judges are also looking for several traditional movements or actions: the mo’emo’e or running movements, which traditionally indicated victory in battle; foot stamping — a sign of challenge or intimidation; and the gego or head movements, which warriors used to confuse their enemies.
Other movements or olioli which anciently were used to distract enemies included rolling the knife around the neck, through the legs and around the ankles, and around the back, as well as folifoli or movements leading up to a strike.
More recently dancers have increased the speed of twirling significantly and also included a wide variety of tumbling and baton twirling movements that add to the overall impact of the fireknife dance.
The Well Dressed Fireknife Dancer
There are no prescribed costumes for fireknife dancers, other than the lavalava or wrap-around that participants tie up and tuck like a swimming suit, so no hanging ends snag or hamper the twirling of the nifo oti.
Many dancers, however, also add other cultural touches such as various types of headbands made from flowers or shells and shredded leaves tied around the lower legs, and sometimes the waist and arms, which accentuate fireknife dance movements.
Old Samoan traditions indicate the ‘ailao, or knife dance, was originally done to rhythmic chants or songs, but today vigorous drumming on a variety of ancient and modern instruments accompanies each Samoan fireknife dance and adds to the overall excitement.
For many centuries, Polynesians created slit-log drums — that is, a trench is gouged out of a section of tree branch — ranging from the small Samoan pate that may only be a foot or two in length and can easily be carried by hand, to huge Fijian lali created from sections of tree trunks (the smaller the drum, the higher the pitch).
Depending on the size of the drum, the drum sticks, which are usually carved from very hard wood, range in size from about a foot-long and thin to heavy mallets and small tree branches for the larger lali.
More modern innovations might also include using bass and other musical drums, metal cracker tins, empty natural gas cylinders and even 55-gallon drums.
Anciently there were traditional rhythms for various types of dances and activities, but today’s fire knife dancers use a variety of rapid beats that might even show Tahitian and other islands’ influence.