Fireknife dancers from around the world gather to contend for a spot on the throne as the World Fireknife Champion
The same warrior mentality that began on the ancient Samoan battle field continues today on stages around the world including the Polynesian Cultural Center. For 25 years modern fireknife dancers have preserved their culture and faced off to be named World Champion. The 2017 world champion was Falaniko Penesa, from Samoa.
According to PCC information, “Penesa, who performs at Hong Kong Disneyland, dazzled the sold-out crowd at the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Pacific Theater with an amazing routine that had him spinning, twirling and juggling one and two fireknives at lightning-fast speed, often behind his back and overhead.”
Sielu Avea, the World Fireknife inaugural Champion, said he would never forget the night was fire dancing at the Night Show for the Polynesian Cultural Center when a cast member threw him a fireknife from the mountain on stage to him on the floor.
“The first knife came really fast, switched, and the hook came last,” he said. The hook on the knife pierced the center of his palm and came out the back of his hand. “I pulled it out really hard and screamed. I yelled at him to throw the other knife. Then I kept going. The crowd was really silent at that time because there we a lot of blood all over me. But the show must go on!” Avea laughed when he said he was thankful that an ambulance was already waiting for him when he got off stage.
Training as a fireknife dancer teaches a person perseverance and strength, said Avea. Getting hurt and getting burned is all a part of the experience. It gives a person the opportunity to improve. “If I get hit by the knife, it teaches me I need to get up and better myself,” he said.
Mikaele Oloa, the 2016 first-place competitor, said it’s important to learn the origins of fireknife. “There is a lot of fancy moves nowadays. Before you learn all those crazy motions, you have to learn the basics and where it came from.”
The fireknife is based off of the traditional weapon of the princess of Samoa, called the Nifo Oti. On one end of the knife is a hook made of a tooth, which is where it gets its name. “Nifo Oti” translates to English as “Tooth of Death.”
Oloa said, “In the old days when they would go to war, they would cut the enemy’s head off and put the head on the hook. Then they would spin it. That is where they got the spinning for the knife dance.”
The idea for a fireknife competition sparked in 1991 when the PCC was going through a financial struggle, said Pulefano Galeai, founder of the Fireknife World Competition. It was so bad they were considering closing the center for two days, he said.
Because there was not enough revenue coming from outside the island, Galeai said the new president of the PCC, Lester W.B. Moore, had the idea to create more cultural events to cater to the local community.
“I thought of doing a Samoan Taupou or Samoan princess competition,” said Galeai. “I didn’t think a knife dance would work. But it did.”
He said after he was given the green light to organize the competition, it took over three months to just contact knife dancers around the world. “They’re from all over. New York, Florida, California, Salt Lake City, Canada, New Zealand, Samoa…” he said. “We got competitors from Japan and Australia. Now the whole world is turning to it.”
Galeai drove day and night all around the island, he said, trying to spread the news of the event. “I wanted everyone to know that it was coming.” He also held workshops for the dancers to teach them how to improve their stage performances.
Despite recruitment from all over the world, the first Fireknife World Champion was from PCC’s own batch of employees. Avea was a BYU-Hawaii student and fireknife dancer for the Night Show.
Galeai said the fireknife competition’s purpose now is not only to help young Samoans connect with their culture, but also to bring people from all nations together. “There are hundreds of dancers now. Whereas there used to only be a handful of us. It’s growing everyday.”
Oloa agreed with Galeai and said, “For me, fireknife dancing is our way to go around the world. It’s our gift that God blessed our country with and it’s something that we get to share with the whole world.”
Galeai added, “Knife dancing, is now completely modernized. The fire is not original. The moves the boys are now doing are 20 times faster. They have incorporated modern moves from baton twirling and juggling.”
Oloa said in the old days, there were not a lot of motions. The dance was in the details of how the dancer would stand, stamp and portray a warrior with his energy. “If you can combine the new motions with the old-school style, that would be a complete fireknife dancer.”
Avea said the heart of fireknife dancing comes from mana. Mana is the spirit and energy within a person. “When I talk about mana I mean perform from your heart. When you do everything from your heart, the feeling will go far and touch other people through your performance.”
Despite the evolving style of dance, Galeai said he is impressed with the original work of the dancers. “They learn to be show people and earn a living.” He said fire dancers he knows have created successful careers out of the art working in places such as Disneyland, Cirque Du Soleil and other entertainment venues. “Most of these boys who have retired [from competition] are doing really, really well...They are making really good money.”
Although no women competed this year, Galeai said in past years, he had the competition organized with women’s and children’s divisions.
People often ask him why young women were being taught fireknife dance he said.
“In the history of Samoa, there were queens and women rulers who would actually go out and fight in battle. They lead the Samoans to war. If they are able to hold [Chief] titles, they are also warriors.”
Later after he retired, Galeai said, the women’s and children’s divisions slowly discontinued. However, he said even without their own category, women are still able to enter the general fireknife dancing competition.