Arts and Culture

Fire fans and a flaming octopus: See this fire troupe's free show in Minneapolis

Northern Fire Dynamic dragon routine
The Northern Fire Dynamic dragon staves routine includes large sticks, one of six props the group uses this year.
Shawn Orton, documentarian of Northern Fire Dynamic

Northern Fire Dynamic, a Minneapolis-based fire performance troupe, is bringing their fiery free show back to Powderhorn Park on Monday, June 12.

For the first time, it will include recorded music and a welded octopus. Typically they use live drumming, and this year the drumming instruments will include pots and pans and a dog bowl.

The show starts at 7 p.m. with “dry runs,” or practice runs without fire, before the flaming performance at 8 p.m. It will be at the southeast side of the park, on the hill between the Recreation Center and basketball court. Attendance is free but donations are welcome. Viewers should bring chairs or a blanket as well as bug spray.

About the performance

“Animalia” is the theme for this performance. This year Heidi Leaf, the Shin (a type of leader) of Northern Fire Dynamic, will perform as an octopus. She learned welding and metalworking this year to make her prop.

Fire performance art is part of the “flow arts,” which are dances with props like aerial silk and lyra hoops. Some people come to watch for the fire, but others watch the people and how performers flow.

The Northern Fire Dynamic has six captains this year, creating a routine for each type of prop: hoops, fans, palms, staves, poi and “dragons.” Palms are small fire torches held on your palms, staves are big sticks, poi are balls of fire on the end of a chain and “dragons” are staves that have multiple wicks on the end. The larger props are animals like giraffes and a peacock.

Northern Fire Dynamic performing a palms routine
Northern Fire Dynamic performs a palms routine.
Shawn Orton, documentarian of Northern Fire Dynamic

Katie Fuller is captain of the palms routine and social media manager of Northern Fire Dynamic. Some routines have a theme, like the palms routine, which she said is about strong women and toxic masculinity.

“We don't necessarily have a specific captain for every routine. But some people have taken on those roles to help lead each group and each group has drawn out their performances,” Fuller said.

“When I'm out, dancing with the fire, and with the group altogether — I'm just really proud of all the work we've put in and seeing this all move together, and having fun and enjoying it,” Fuller said.

Fire roles

The Northern Fire Dynamic has 33 fire performance artists. Leaf says about six members are not doing fire, and the rest are performing with fire this year. The roles are not set in stone. 

“When you break it down to like, defined roles, it starts to be like, ‘Oh, everybody sort of does everything,’” said Joshua Nelson, the fuel manager of Northern Fire Dynamic. There is a Shin, prop captains, fuel manager, safety, performers and more.

The Shin is responsible for ensuring the group follows the rules set by the Fire Conclave, a collective of fire performance groups who perform at Burning Man in Nevada. Leaf explained that most of the Fire Conclave are past shins, who provide mentorship and feedback to troupes like Northern Fire Dynamic.

This performance is part of an audition video for Burning Man, “and the Fire Conclave gives us suggestions and things they want to see, things they don't want to see,” said Leaf.

Northern Fire Dynamic stilts
Northern Fire Dynamic practices with stilts and other fire props.
Shawn Orton, documentarian of Northern Fire Dynamic

The Shin role is taken on for a limited time. This is Leaf’s second year and her last.

“No one person runs it all. It is a community cooperative, and everybody has a chance to give their input and have their visions included too,” she said.

You can hold more than one role, or focus on one depending on what you take on for the year. For instance, Joshua Nelson is a performer but is the fuel manager this year and is only performing in the finale. The fuel manager makes sure no fire comes near the fuel before it’s lit on the props and that each prop is fueled appropriately.

“Each time we do a performance, we're going through about five gallons of fuel. Every performance in one run through the performance … We do it twice on our public performance night. So we'll go through easily 10 gallons of fuel that night,” Nelson said.

Fire Safety

“As a hired performer, there’s an insurance you have to have,” Leaf said.

The Northern Fire Dynamic said they met with the fire marshal to make sure they were safe. “We were probably safer than they expected,” laughed Leaf.

Leaf started out as “Safety” in 2014. The Safety role watches performers for potential injuries and accidents. The Fire Conclave allows people under the age of 18 to join fire troupes as long as they have an assigned Safety who solely focuses on that youth.nor

Northern Fire Dynamic dry run practice
Northern Fire Dynamic dry runs a palms routine.
Shawn Orton, documentarian of Northern Fire Dynamic

The safety team is stationed at “every corner … if you have a prop that's freshly fueled and it bumps your leg, you can transfer some fuel to your leg and they have a blanket that will put that out … We have a lot of protocols to keep everybody safe. Our troupe is really well known for that safety aspect of things. We really, really take that side of things seriously,” Nelson said.

Fire may not sound at first family-friendly, but Northern Fire Dynamic is.

“We absolutely want kids here, my grandkids come,” Leaf said. Precautions keep kids far enough back from the fire.

Future of Northern Fire Dynamic

At the moment, according to Leaf, members of Northern Fire Dynamic are mostly women and LGBTQ+ people. She said she hopes to see more people of color get into flow arts and join Northern Fire Dynamic. Fuller also wants to see the community continue to grow and more people join Northern Fire Dynamic.

Nelson noted how the “whole neighborhood turns out for it” and friends and family come to support everyone. He said he wants that support to expand to an even greater audience.

Northern Fire Dynamic staves routine
Northern Fire Dynamic staves routine
Shawn Orton, documentarian of Northern Fire Dynamic

“You see people just really embrace their inner strengths and bloom within themselves. Grasping something that could be that dangerous and conquering it, overcoming your fears of it … It’s really empowering,” Nelson said.

Leaf said the group has “a purpose of building the community and community skill shares, helping each other learn leadership skills, and of course, performance skills.”

“My favorite thing is watching people grow. Watching their skills grow, their personality, their attitudes. Just watching them, flourish into new, different people,” Leaf said.

Their next free performance will be on Aug. 7, also in Powderhorn Park.

Correction (June 13, 2023): An earlier version of this story included an incorrect date for a free performance in August.