All fired up

In a small aikido studio on 257 Pine Street in Burlington, a juggler deftly slings four pins in a cascading pattern. A hoop artist hoists herself up and spins idly, suspended from the ceiling. These are event hosts Maïz Vargas Sandoval and Kayla “Maple” Steen, who greet each newcomer as they enter, accordion music playing jauntily overhead from the venue’s loudspeaker. Around the room friends and strangers chat and fiddle with their performance props, getting ready to practice in a dedicated space during one of the twice monthly winter flow jam sessions of the Burlington Burn Club, who will begin spinning with fire again in May.

The Burn Club started out of Vermont’s small circus arts community. “We had a circus group, focusing on all arts, but a lot of us are burners and dealing with fire and permits are required,” said Maïz, who studied circus arts in Columbia and has been an insured fire performer for over 20 years. Because they needed a safe and legal space to practice with fire, founders approached Burlington’s Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront Department to acquire the appropriate permits, insurance, and have safety measures vetted by the city’s Fire Department.

But it wasn’t just about legality. “We wanted to have a space and with that space reinforce the culture of fire dancing,” said Maïz. The community is very focused on being welcoming, kind, and inclusive to create a safe space for artistic exploration with fire. For many, it’s a very personal, spiritual experience. “I’m native, my grandmother is native from Costa Rica, so I was raised in those ways,” said Maïz, “For me the connection I have with the fire element … It’s sacred to me, but it’s different for everyone.” He notes a large focus is on the shapes you make. “When you spin fire, what is a spin itself? You’re creating a circle. You’re creating geometry.”

Poi for example, which originated with the Maori people of New Zealand, involves a round weight on a cord, usually two, that are spun in alternating and dynamic patterns, and is a popular choice among Burn Club members. With all of these props – staffs, fans, poi, there’s a geometry to the movements that’s mesmerizing to watch and that can be exhilarating to create. Like all dance, there is joy to be shared in connecting to your body in this way, “creating shapes and discovering your inner child, to be playful,” as Maïz shared with me. “It’s understanding more about my body, my potential, my boundaries.”

Ascent photo and video

Soon, summer sessions will take place in Battery Street Park, where experienced fire dancers and newcomers will come together again to skill share, practice, and talk safety in a designated burn space.
Burn Club host and founding member Maïz said safety is the first thing they go over each session. Orientation on proper fueling of props, waiver signing, and tutorials occur at the beginning of every meeting.

“We’re creating a safety culture,” says Maïz. For example, the club always maintains a minimum ratio of one spotter, equipped with special Kevlar or Duvetyne fireproof blankets, per two people controlling fire and they tend to recommend that newcomers practice with unlit props first.
“We’ve been trying to build a situation where the winter jams are a place where you come and build skills and practice here without lighting and then by summertime you know a few tricks,” said Maïz.
More experienced members like him are there to facilitate, encourage, and keep everyone safe. Even if you’ve missed the winter practice sessions, “You don’t need to know anything to come,” said Maïz.
Because the club can be costly to maintain with permits and paraffin fuel expenses, the Burn Club sells merchandise on Teespring, which can be found via their Instagram or Facebook, @burlingtonburnclub, and full $75 memberships for the summer season.

A membership is not required to attend though.

There’s a small suggested donation of $5, but they stress that they don’t want economic hardship to ever keep anyone away.

“Only give what you can,” says Maïz. Any profits the club makes beyond what they need to maintain events goes towards a yearly retreat they take in Johnson in the fall, where members will camp, spin fire, share food, and spend time together for the weekend. “Sharing is the essence of our community,” says Maïz, “We want to expand the community and we’re open to all levels.” For anyone interested in exploring with fire and new friends, the Burn Club will begin meeting in Battery Street Park May 3 from 7:30-9:30 p.m, and will continue every first and third Wednesday. You’ll certainly see Maïz, and you might just see me.