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Fire Dancers Busk for Travel Funds

Fire Dancers Busk for Travel Funds Interview ZIPOLITE, Mexico- When the sun goes down the buskers come out. Working the main street of Zipolite that flanks the beach, jugglers, musicians, and fire dancers move from restaurant to restaurant, serenading diners for their pocket change. These entertainers are more than often travelers, moving across countries and [...]

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Fire Dancers Busk for Travel Funds Interview

ZIPOLITE, Mexico- When the sun goes down the buskers come out. Working the main street of Zipolite that flanks the beach, jugglers, musicians, and fire dancers move from restaurant to restaurant, serenading diners for their pocket change. These entertainers are more than often travelers, moving across countries and continents off of the funds they raise from performing in the streets.

I sat down with a troupe of traveling fire dancers in the streets of Zipolite one night. I shared my beer with them, they shared some stories with me. One dancer was named Chelo, from Patagonia, he spun flaming poi; another was named Niki, from Buenos Aires, she danced with a flaming hula hoop; and the third was a girl from France who played the accordion while the other two danced in flames.

Hula Hoop fire dancing

Hula Hoop fire dancing

I had watched this group perform at various times over the past week, and I knew that they always attracted a crowd of onlookers — some curiously watching, some taking photos, and some standing pensively still, perhaps scared to navigate any farther through a street alight with flaming apparatuses.


I asked Chelo, who did poi — which is a way of dancing while spinning flaming balls at the ends of chains with your hands around your body and through the air — how he learned this art. He responded vaguely, but added that he began doing poi around a year ago and started performs at stoplights in front of momentarily paused traffic in cities. He added that he had been traveling perpetually for four years, as he moved north from his home in Patagonia through South and Central America to Mexico.

Fire dancing street performance

Fire dancing street performance in Zipolite

Niki did a similar show as Chelo, only she danced with a hula-hoop with spokes of flames sticking out from it. I have seen many poi shows before, and, while the effect of spinning flames looks impressive against the background of night, I have lost my instinctual fear that the dancer may seriously be burned. It is my impression that this empathetic fear is part of the great appeal of watching fire dancers, and Niki’s show had this element still fully intact. As she dances, she spins the flames on her hula-hoop perilously close to her body, face, and neck. “It looks like she is going to burn herself,” I heard one onlooker say while watching her perform. I must say that he was correct. While poi is generally spun from the ends of chains that extend an arm’s distance from the body, the flaming hula-hoop comes in perilously close contact with skin and clothing.

I then asked the fire dancers if they ever burn themselves. They laughed as Chelo showed me a trail of burn scars that went up and down his arms. In fact, many travelers around Zipolite can boast of these markings. The fire that these guys use in their performances is real, and it burns.

Fuel for doing flaming poi

Gas and diesel mixture for doing fire dancing and poi

I looked over Chelo’s and Niki’s fire dancing gear, and they had an oil jug full of a flammable substance and a plastic yogurt cup that they dipped their poi ball and hula hoop spikes into. I asked what they used to start the fire, and was told that they could use various substances, but preferred a mix of gasoline and diesel.

I held Chelo’s recently inflamed poi balls in my hand and looked at them a little closer. They consisted of black fabric and metal wires wrapped around the balls that hung limply from the end of two foot chains. Chelo told me that the fabric was jean material, sort of like duct cloth. The same cloth and wire were also wrapped around the spikes that protruded from the outer circumference of Niki’s hula hoop.

Poi balls

Poi balls for fire dancing

The French accordion player added a different sort of music accompaniment to this fire dancing show. Often, the music that these dancers spin fire to is drum based, and consists of a team of bongo drummers pounding out a tribal-esque beat with their palms. I must say that this group’s accordion was a fresh change of pace. She played klezmer sounding music while Chelo spun poi and Niki danced within a ring of fire. She said that she had no plan to go back to Europe any time soon, that she would keep playing music in the streets of Latin America for pocket change.

“How much money do you make a night?” I asked the group, looking to get a hold on the dollars and cents of the operation.

Like most of the travelers that I had previously interviewed for the independent travel business series, they were a little vague about their earnings, stating that on some nights they pull in 50 pesos each, while on others they pocket 250 pesos. But street performing was a secondary income for all of the members of this group. They were also traveling jewelry artisans, and Chelo explained it perfectly when he said, “We only perform in the streets at night when we don’t make enough money selling jewelry in the day.”

Niki, the hula hooper, is the wife of Dan the traveling jewelery artisan who I previously interviewed, and works with him on the Nomad Fusion jewelry collection.

Chelo the fire poi dancer

Chelo the fire poi street performer

In all, none of these travelers are getting monetarily rich from performing in the streets or selling their jewelry, and many are working today just to travel tomorrow. But collecting excessive amounts of money does not seem to be the plot, living is. Freedom, time, and enjoying the work day are the commodities here. There seems to be a different set of values that are necessary for running an independent travel business — a set of values where time, the idea of personal liberty, and self actualization represent the pinnacles of success.

“Why do you do this? Why do you perform in the street? Why do you travel?” I asked Chelo.

“Never I don’t know,” he responded with a smile, “I feel this direction, I go this way.”


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Filed under: Dance, Independent Travel Business, Mexico, Work

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

6 comments… add one

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  • Dave from The Longest Way Home January 8, 2011, 12:59 am

    Interesting to see the the people of the real world fund their travel and lifestyle!

    I notice that Chelo has no burns either. This is good. The last time I saw fire dancers was in The Philippines. The girl set fire to the stage. Prior to that was in West Africa when the guy set fire to his head.

    Latino fire dancers are obviously mush better!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 8, 2011, 9:59 am

      Haha, no new burns. The guy’s arms are all scarred up though from, apparently, the learning process.

      It is easy to think that just because you see someone in a foreign country doing something that they know what they are doing — not always so. Your stories about the fire dancers setting themselves and everything else on fire made me laugh. I’ve often wondered about the hair, as many of these performers have long, dried up dreadlocks that I could imagine going up in flames like tinder. One guy here set his pants on fire then burned his chest really bad.

      It is a good show though.

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    • Bob L January 8, 2011, 11:18 am

      The last time I saw a firedancer, it was a VERY large woman, NAKED. Of course, most of the rest of us were naked as well. It was pretty much a retirement nudist camp. Not a pretty site all around, and no one wanted to get too close, as there are some places on your body that you REALLY want to avoid burning.

      Bob L

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      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 8, 2011, 5:39 pm

        Haha, very true, very true. Though it would have been funny to see some regions of hair set ablaze. Naked fire dancers, that takes the risk to a whole other level.

  • Natalie January 10, 2011, 12:00 am

    Sometimes humans come up with the most amazing way to earn a living. Not sure I would be able to start playing with fire though. I would end up one of those who would burn to a crisp

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 10, 2011, 1:32 pm

      No kidding, it is true. Who would have thought that you could make enough money to live around the world just from dancing with fire? haha. Or from working on a travel website, for that matter haha.

      You will be surprised what you can do once running out of money on the road, believe me haha.

      Thanks for the comment.

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