Siva Afi: still burning brightly

By Marj Moore ,

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A Hawaiian fire knife dancer

A Hawaiian fire knife dancer (Photo: wikipedia)

You already know to expect spectacular feats with fire at this year’s International Siva Afi Competition in September 1-3. 

But get ready for some extra special moments to mark the landmark 15 years that the event has showcased fire knife dancing.

STARTING EARLY: Malu Sapolu already shows surprising dexterity at the age of two.

STARTING EARLY: Malu Sapolu already shows surprising dexterity at the age of two.

“It’s the second longest running fire knife dance competition in the world after the World Fire Knife Dance Competition in Hawaii,” said Lene Leota proudly.

“We began 15 years ago and each year, the show is a culmination of a year’s activities.”

Lene is at a loss to estimate how many kids he has trained.

“Hundreds maybe, a thousand?” he mused.

But the annual three-night event in September is just the tip of the iceberg of what Leota and Clare do in addition to running a successful printing business.

Over the years, a strong, loyal base of sponsors and supporters has contributed to the longevity and success of the show.

They include sponsors, Radio Polynesia, Samoa Observer, Samoatel/Bluesky, Ace Hardware, Betham Freight, Funway Rentals, M and J Ah Fook, K1 Electricals and this year, Federal Pacific who now own the venue for the shows.

And speaking of support, the Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi never misses a show when he is on island, said Leota.

“I think they (sponsors and supporters) appreciate the benefits that they get from a major tourism and youth event and the fact that we are trying to make a difference in kids’ lives.

“We also acknowledge our sponsors every week at our dinner shows with their logos on our billboards.”

Other activities during the year include the free fire knife workshops conducted weekly. 

The reason these are free is because Lene doesn’t want kids who can’t afford to attend the workshops to be left out.

Then there are the dinner and a cultural show for locals and tourists; shows supporting community and government events, dance workshops and shows in villages in Upolu and Savaii, attendance at other fire knife competitions eg Hawaii and the satisfaction of knowing that five dancers they trained are contracted and working at Hong Kong Disneyland.

STARTING EARLY: Malu Sapolu already shows surprising dexterity at the age of two.
STARTING EARLY: Malu Sapolu already shows surprising dexterity at the age of two.

One of the things that gives Lene satisfaction is that participants in their weekly workshops come from all walks of life.

“I love seeing them all enjoying themselves,” said Leota, it doesn’t matter if they are street kids, ex-patriate kids or from the local community. And there are no age limits. “Our youngest participant, Malu Sapolu is not yet three years old,” said Clare. The competition was first run in 2002 by Lene when he formed a fire knife dancing club – the Ailao Club.  

Its purpose was to preserve and promote the art of Samoan fire knife dancing and to support the development of fire knife dancers living in Samoa. 

As a fire knife dancer himself for many years, Lene was concerned that many of Samoa’s traditional and performing arts were being ‘borrowed’ by other islands like Hawaii, Guam, Tahiti and New Zealand and claimed as their own. 

They were thus limiting Samoa’s opportunity to capitalise on a growing, worldwide interest in traditional, performing arts. 

One of the first projects was to take a group of Fire Dancers to the World Fire Knife Competition in Hawaii in May 2002.  The one female of the group created history by not only being the first female to perform, but also by winning the Intermediate Competition. 

Her younger brother won the Junior Competition in Hawaii the same year.

In 2003, realising there was no point training fire knife dancers if they had nowhere to showcase their talent, Lene started  putting on shows covering traditional Samoan dancing.

These shows also help to provide many dancers with a valuable income. The village road shows have a dual purpose. 

Firstly to inspire the village kids and give them hope of a future dance career if they are not good at school or do not excel in sports. 

Secondly to illustrate to the dance group and fire knife dancers (who are mostly from the town area), the hardships experienced by kids growing up in remote areas.  

Over the years, hundreds of fire knife dancers have been trained many of whom are working in Samoa or overseas and supporting their families. 

Joint winners of the first competition in 2002, the then ‘National Bank Siva Afi Competition’ were Hogan Toomalatai and Sakaio Pupualii both of whom now perform at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Also now performing there is Evi Seumanutafa, from Matautu uta and more recent additions to Hong Kong, Disneyland are Frankie Solomona and Tuai Atonio both of whom started their careers as juniors in the Ailao Club.  Frankie returned to Samoa in 2015 to win the 14th International Siva Afi tournament, Lene said.

Background

The origins of siva afi (fire knife dancing) date way back according to Wikipedia. The siva afi was originally performed with the nifo oti (Samoan war club ) which is very dangerous as the steel of the nifo oti heats up and burns . The modern fire knife dance has its roots in the ancient Samoan exhibition called ailao - the

flashy demonstration of a Samoan warrior's battle prowess through artful twirling, throwing and catching, and dancing with a war club. The ailao could be performed with any war club, and some colonial accounts confirm that women also performed ailao at the head of ceremonial processions, especially daughters of high chiefs. During night dances torches were often twirled and swung about by dancers, although a war club was the usual implement used. Fire was added to the knife in 1946 by a Samoan knife dancer named Freddie Letuli, later to become paramount chief Letuli Olo Misilagi. Letuli was performing in San Francisco and noticed a Hindu fire eater and a little girl with lighted batons. The fire eater loaned him some fuel, he wrapped some towels around his knife, and the fire knife dance was born.

Additional information supplied by Lene and Clare Leota.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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