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Dancing with fire

With a flaming fire knife in one hand the young performer flies to the edge of the stage, somersaults across it and begins his routine that involves spinning the burning fire knife in front of his face.

Gisborne Boys' High student Ethan Ratapu only began training a year ago in the Samoan art known as siva afi but with moves like that managed to take fifth place in a siva afi competition in New Zealand's first Schools Siva Afi competition which was held at Auckland's Mangere Arts Centre on Saturday Competitors from Gisborne and Auckland performed traditional items from Samoa, Tahiti and Hawaii.

Ethan took up training in the art of fire knife dance under maths teacher and siva afi exponent Tim Noyce “because it looked cool and different”, he says.

After living in Samoa for eight years, during which time he trained in the art of siva afi, Noyce moved to Gisborne. His achievements in siva afi competition include winning the New Zealand 2017 TahiMana Fire championship, third place in the 2018 individual men's event in the Cook Islands and third place in a duo routine with Amo Ieriko in the 2019 world siva afi competition in Samoa.

“I'm pretty much the only white guy who does siva afi,” says Noyce.

“When I came to Gisborne I thought I would see if the boys were into it.”

Several were.

“First we were given six basic moves to learn,” says Ethan.

“We practised with sticks weighted at one end. The real sticks have a machete blade at one end. It was scary at first then after a while it was fun.”

The stick is known as nifo oki — the taiaha of the Samoan, says Noyce.

“It's a bit shorter than a taiaha. Samoans made blades from whalebone. The end of it has a hook with a barb. Europeans changed it to a machete blade made from spring steel.”

In 1940 American Samoan paramount chief Freddie Letuli saw fire dances in the US, says Noyce.

“He added fire to the Samoan dance and took it back to the islands. Everyone has a different story about its origins.”

Boards are fixed either side of the blade which is wound with cloth to soak up the accelerant.

“I have a lot of scars on me,” says Noyce.

“It cuts through and melts your skin. I've had the hook go through my wrist.”

No blades are used in school student training or performance. In performance, exponents can use moves developed from the six basic moves, says Ethan — which led to his favourite move in the Auckland competition.

“I'm facing backwards then I spin around spinning the stick at the same time.”

That'll be the stick that is flaming at one end.

Ethan plans to continue training with a view to taking home the Auckland siva afi competition trophy — an actual fire knife with hooked and barbed blade.

ON FIRE: Gisborne Boys' High student and siva afi (fire knife dance) exponent Ethan Ratapu performs in a siva afi competition held in Auckland on Saturday. Pictures supplied
NIFO OKI: An example of the performance weapon used in siva afi, Samoan fire knife dance.