Brothers in Fire

by twinink on October 25, 2012

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

At first there is only darkness broken by the steady beat of a lalidrum. Another lali joins the rhythm, then five more, the noise building like slow-rolling thunder until, in an instant, it stops. Suddenly a blue and ghostly flame lights the stage as Viavia “VJ” Tiumalu holds aloft a nifo oti knife, its hooked tip on fire. With his naked palm, he drags the flame down the length of the steel blade, setting it ablaze. Then the defending world fireknife champion raises it high like a warrior of old, lets out a wild cry and begins to dance.

Let’s be clear: This is not your grandfather’s fireknife dancing. You may think you know all about those twirling rings of fire—perhaps you’ve seen them at a lu‘au, in a Cirque du Soleil show, even in Lilo and Stitch—but until you’ve witnessed the dancing at the World Fireknife Championship, you haven’t seen the best. The event, which takes place over four nights every May at the Polynesian Cultural Center on O‘ahu’s North Shore, has grown to become the Olympics of the fireknife dancing world. In 2012 the championship marked its twentieth anniversary and welcomed more than forty professional dancers who’d come from all over the globe. The ones to beat: Rex and VJ Tiumalu from Orlando, 2011’s defending champions, Rex in the intermediate division, VJ overall. Only this year there was a twist: with Rex now old enough to qualify for the overall division, 2012 marked the first time the brothers would compete against each other … and both were determined to win.

With their powerful bodies and their long hair pulled into matching buns, the Tiumalu brothers look much the same—but the similarities mostly end there. “We’re close in our dancing but not in anything else,” Rex confides as he and VJ recline together pre-competition on a lauhala mat in a thatched fale (house) in the PCC’s Samoan Village. “Outside the stage we are very different people. I’m outgoing and VJ is very serious.” As if to highlight this, Rex breaks away to greet a rival dancer while VJ stays seated. Only two years older than his 18-year-old brother, he radiates an intensity far removed from Rex’s boisterous charm. “We are brothers,” VJ concurs, “but we very much stand alone.”

On the first two nights of the 2012 competition, the Tiumalu brothers’ routines come just minutes apart, Rex taking the stage before VJ in both rounds. Every dancer has a different style — some are more fluid, some flashy, some fierce. Rex casts himself in that last mold: “You have to come out furious. It’s not a baton-twirling competition. It’s not a circus act. This is a Samoan warrior dance.” He launches into his act, his knife a blurred spinning circle of fire that he tosses seamlessly from hand to hand. “I try to dance like I’m fighting someone in battle,” he says. His dream is to one day become another Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and when he isn’t dancing, he’s training in his uncle’s wrestling school. “Performance is my passion,” Rex asserts.

VJ follows shortly after with a more muted and mesmerizing routine. He doesn’t leap or tumble; his dance is smooth and fast, with nothing forced or strained. Ambidextrous, VJ can spin two knives in opposite directions simultaneously, a feat no one else can match. “Rex puts more anger into his dance,” VJ says. “For me it just flows. Once I get my knife spinning, it’s like it won’t stop.”

It was that unique ability that set VJ apart in the competition in 2011 and won him the world title—and this year it sends him sailing into this competition’s final three. Rex, though, does not advance. Offstage the elder Tiumalu remains modest, moving and speaking with a languor that’s in direct contrast to the velocity with which he performs. “For me it isn’t just about winning,” VJ says. “I want people to learn about our culture, where we come from.”

One of the people the Tiumalu brothers have inspired is Preston Weber, who also hails from Florida. Just 13, Preston has won every fireknife dance competition he’s entered, and in 2012 he became the youngest dancer ever to win the PCC’s intermediate division, taking the title Rex won the year before. Preston is largely self-taught and was the only non-Polynesian in competition. “People tell me I’ve made the record books because I’m the first full Caucasian to ever win,” shrugs Preston the night after being crowned. Given that the dance is so deeply rooted in Samoan heritage, his win is no small feat. And both Rex and VJ, who occasionally mentor the young champ back in Florida, see this as a good thing.

“Preston is a perfect example of how fireknife dancing inspires many kids,” says VJ. “To have him represent our culture only makes it stronger.”

Though fireknife dancing today draws from modern innovations in martial arts and acrobatics, its origins date back to a time eons ago when Samoan chiefs waged war on neighboring villages. The traditional ailao dance was an intimidation routine, much like the Maori haka, performed before battle by Samoan warriors to demonstrate their prowess to their enemies. The skill with which a fighter could swing his nifo oti war club in the dance delivered a lethal warning of the doom foes would face in combat.

The ailao afi—the ailao with the addition of flame—was created five thousand miles from its island roots. In 1946 Uluao Letuli, a young dancer from American Samoa, was performing his knife routine in Golden Gate Park when he was inspired by a fellow performer, a Hindu fire-eater. Borrowing some fuel, Letuli, who was nicknamed “Freddie” for his Astaire-like dance moves, wrapped a towel around his blade and set it on fire. “I did not dream that the fire knife dance would become so widespread,” Letuli writes in his biography, Flaming Sword of Samoa: The Story of the Fire Knife Dance. Yet it did, in no small measure thanks to Letuli himself, who performed his dance in movies and TV shows and on live stages all over the world. For forty years until his passing in 2003, Letuli taught fireknife to thousands of future dancers.

One of Letuli’s students was Viavia Tiumalu Sr., a lead fireknife dancer at the long-running Makahiki Luau at SeaWorld Orlando, who literally passed the torch to his sons. “We practically grew up onstage,” VJ recalls. “When we were little, we used to sit on the side every day,” Rex chimes in, “and watch while our mom danced Tahitian and our dad danced fire.” Today the two brothers continue the family tradition, both performing professionally in that same SeaWorld show. “If it wasn’t for our parents, we’d probably be playing Nintendo,” Rex jokes. “They really pushed us to become the dancers we are today.” But even though these siblings live and work together, they make it a point to always perform apart. “We alternate days,” Rex explains. “I don’t want VJ to see what I’m doing, and he doesn’t want to see me.” VJ frames their competitiveness in a more intense light: “Even though we’re cool with each other, when we’re on stage we’re there to kill each other.”

You don’t need to know a great deal about fireknife dancing to understand its danger. To dance with fire—to place a flaming knife on your bare feet or tap hot steel to the end of your tongue—is to deny fear and pain. “All firedancers get burned,” Rex shrugs, showing off the scorched black blister on his hand where he caught his knife wrong in the semifinals. VJ exposes the burn scars on his thigh, a souvenir from the time his grass skirt caught fire. “I was out four months with second-degree burns. I looked like Frankenstein with dead skin hanging off my legs.” Rex points to a thin pink scar encircling his throat. “I spun the blade around and it slashed me right here. It’s something you love but you get hurt for it.”

Beyond the flames, the hooked lave— or “tooth of death”—is always exposed. And competition knives must be sharpened and inspected to keep in line with the tradition of the war dance. “The knife originally was a weapon,” says VJ, “with the lave used to cut the opponent’s head off. After the battle you would carry your enemy’s head back on the hook to show the king.” That’s the reason why today dropping your knife in competition results in a dreaded three-point deduction. “You can’t let go of the knife,” PCC judge Vaitu‘u Kaio stresses. It signifies a fatal mistake. “You’re there as a warrior to protect your family, your country. Once you drop it, you’re dead.”

As VJ takes center stage on the final night of competition, the sold-out 2,700-seat theater erupts in applause. The 2011 champ looks fated to win again this year … until the unthinkable happens. In the last seconds of his nearly flawless final routine, he drops his knife. The same mistake that eliminated his brother Rex in the semis tonight costs VJ the crown and puts him in third place.

Immediately after the winner, Joseph Cadousteau of Tahiti, is announced, the former champ stands backstage, looking like a marathon runner just over the finish line. “I’ve never been more tired in my life,” VJ admits with a hangdog smile. But in the next moment he’s swarmed by a pack of exuberant adolescent boys, all angling for a photo op. And in the next breath he vows to return. “I’m proud to represent a tradition so far removed from its roots in Samoa. It isn’t just about the dance. We do this to inspire future generations so our culture doesn’t disappear.”

As for each other, VJ and Rex come away from this year’s World Fireknife Championship with newfound mutual respect. “I’m not even saying this because he’s my brother, but VJ to me is ahead of everybody,” Rex gushes. VJ echoes the praise: “To tell you the truth, I think Rex is better than me—one of the best fireknife dancers I’ve ever seen. And I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother.”