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Duluth's Spin Collective enjoys thrill of lighting stage with fire

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Denise Hooper (from right), Aleasha Hladilek, Jillian Forte and Sherry Christiansen perform for Duluth's All Souls Night celebration Nov. 4. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 10
Matt Lindberg performs for an All Souls Night celebration at the Duluth Public Library Saturday night. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 10
Jillian Forte burns "rotten ideas" written onto paper during the All Souls Night celebration at the Duluth Public Library on Nov. 4. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 10
Aleasha Hladilek performs with the Spin Collective during the Duluth All Souls Night celebration at the Duluth Public Library on Nov. 4. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 10
Denise Hooper and Aleasha Hladilek perform with the Spin Collective during the Duluth All Souls Night celebration at the Duluth Public Library on Nov. 4. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 10
Sherry Christiansen (foreground right) , Jayme Hudson and Aleasha Hladilek perform with the Spin Collective during the Duluth All Souls Night celebration on Nov. 4. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com7 / 10
Jayme Hudson performs with the Spin Collective during the Duluth All Souls Night celebration at the Duluth Public Library the evening of Nov. 4. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com8 / 10
Aleasha Hladilek performs with the Spin Collective during the Duluth All Souls Night celebration. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com9 / 10
Jillian Forte's face lights up as she spins fire during an All Souls Night performance in Duluth on Nov. 4. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com10 / 10

They've been stopped by the police; they've had the fire marshal called on them — but there's nothing illegal about it. The Spin Collective has been setting blaze to hula hoops, swords and staffs for performances at Homegrown Music Festival, Tall Ships and more.

Most recently, the group performed for All Souls Night in the Duluth library plaza. Before the show, children and adults sat and stood near the stage, a fire pit burning toward the front.

Off-stage, several drummers kept the beat as Jillian Forte, Aleasha Hladilek, Sherry Christiansen, Jayme Hudson and Denise Hooper held Wolverine-like fans with four spokes, the ends ablaze.

In unison, the women angled and waved the fans horizontally, vertically, their arms like windmills as the fires waxed and waned, darkening and illuminating their faces.

When performers exited the stage, they lit the tools of those entering.

Matt Lindberg held two freshly lit, long, black staffs. He stepped backward and forward, moving his instruments quickly in the same direction, then in opposing directions.

Hooper carried a burning sword. She locked eyes across the way with Hladilek, also holding a lit sword. They nodded and walked toward each other slowly in matching steps.

While the collective does rehearse and choreograph some shows, a lot of it can be improvised and in the moment, they said. They've been at this for so long, they know each other's movements.

The beginning

Forte was introduced to fire spinning (aka fire dancing) when she lived in Costa Rica. What she learned, she brought back and shared with Hladilek. From there, Forte acquired a busking permit, and after performing in Canal Park and various locations on Superior Street, the two formed the Spin Collective around 2009.

The trick is white gas camp oil and kevlar wicks; that's what's on fire, not their props. The group also travels with buckets, a wool blanket, leather gloves and fuel. "Always bring extra because the show's over when your fuel's out," Hladilek said. Each performance takes about a gallon and a half.

Some spinning rules are to properly cover your body and hair, and to wear all cotton material, no synthetics or plastics. For safety, there's always one or two people whose job is to smother the lit tools after a performer is finished.

Their job is also to watch for unintended blazes. "The rule is, if it's more than 3 percent of your body for more than 3 seconds, they have to run up and yell at the person," Forte said.

During their recent performance, Forte's skirt caught on fire. Some gasps were heard in the crowd. Forte smiled as she patted it out, "It's OK, don't blame the fire."

"I think I was freaked out the first time I lit myself on fire," she said afterward. "But then someone said, 'Remember, it's the fuel that's on fire; you're not on fire.' "

If you put it out quickly, it's not an issue, Hladilek said.

As a group, they've had no incidents, Forte said, adding they do have a fire extinguisher and rope lights that act as a visual boundary to onlookers.

"Whenever people get worried, we say we only light ourselves on fire," Hladilek said.

The rush

Many dancers have come and gone, and Hladilek and Forte are the remaining original members. The collective number stays at about seven or eight.

New members are groupies for a while, Forte said, and that's true for Jayme Hudson and Matt Lindberg. Both were on fire safety duty before lighting up for a performance.

Hudson prefers spinning poi, a ball of fire on the end of a chain. Lindberg found the staff at a performing camp in the Cities. "It was just all staff after that," he said.

All members come to the collective with an interest, and depending on their commitment and stage presence, they'll be trained in poi or hoop. A lot of inspiration comes from YouTube and travel, said Forte. Hladilek practices the hula hoop 20-30 minutes a day.

Over the years, they've added more stage props: fire wall, archways, a large heart, that Hladilek, a professional welder, made. They've also added spitting fire.

For this, natural lamp oil is recommended. (Not the kind that you use in tiki torches.) Lamp oil only lights if it's in a mist, so the oil that's rolling down your chin is safe from the flame.

"It's still doesn't taste very good, but it has a lower ignition," Hladilek said.

Some people make the mistake of spitting fire with alcohol, which will light when it rolls down your chin. A lot of tricks look dangerous, but they aren't when done correctly, Hladilek said, adding that fire is loud.

"When it's so near your body, it's a whooshing sound, and it always gives you a boost of excitement." And the thrill never goes away, Hladilek said.

"It's an instant adrenaline rush," Forte said.

The group

Many members said performances are enthralling, but a big draw is getting together with friends and playing dress up. Costumes and makeup can end up being the biggest expense, and they like to wear items to reflect the flame.

"Always black and sparkly," Hladilek said.

During last week's show, Sherry Christiansen wore a black and silver top that appeared glittery as she swung her poi hard and fast. She kneeled on the stage and gripped the poi tightly as it spun inches from her face.

"It's a great feeling, being as close to my fire dancing partners as I can be," Christiansen said after the show.

Other spinners agreed.

"It was fun to be on stage and look at their beautiful, smiling faces, and it just made me really excited and inspired. I love what I do," Hudson said.

"We're really all about friends," said Forte, whose daughter, Aurora, 16, joined the finale in a fiery hula hoop. Forte is excited to share this with her daughter. "I've been getting good pictures of her," she said.

As the crowd dispersed last week, Jean Larson of Duluth said: "It was amazing. I'm absolutely floored by it." The performance made Tina Fox of Duluth want to try spinning fire. "Definitely inspiring," added Kelly Leingang, also of Duluth.

This is the kind of impression Forte hopes the group can make.

"My hope is that we're inspiring more people to do street art and performance art in the area. I'm hoping that all these little kids that watch us grow up and do their own art, especially all the little girls. I hope I can be a role model."

Fire spinning terms

• Poi: ball of fire on the end of a chain

• Staff: a long straight pole with fire on both ends

• Fire hoop: a hula hoop with five or six spokes on it

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346