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"Siva afi" redirects here, for other uses of the term "siva afi", see Siva afi (disambiguation)
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The Fire Knife is a traditional Samoan cultural implement that is used in ceremonial dances. It was originally composed of a machete wrapped in towels on both ends with a portion of the blade exposed in the middle. Tribal performers of fire knife dancing (or Siva Afi as it is called in Samoa) dance while twirling the knife and doing other acrobatic stunts. The towels are set afire during the dances thus explaining the name.

Contents

History

Knife dancing has a history which goes back several generations. The modern fire knife dance has its roots in the Samoan "Ailao" - a Samoan warrior's knife dance which was done with the "nifo oti", which means "tooth of death".this is similar to the "Kailao" of Tonga. The Samoan's eventually combined the nifo oti with the "lave" - which was basically a hook and was used to snare parts of an enemy's body. When modern machetes became available, the Nifo Oti evolved into its current form, a machete with the tip cut off, fashioned into a hook, and then welded back on. The Ailao dance was done both pre-battle, to intimidate the enemy and to psyche up the warrior, and also post-battle as a victory dance. The hook was often used to carry and display the head of a defeated enemy.

Fire was added to the knife in 1946 by a Samoan knife dancer named Freddie Letuli, later to become Paramount Chief Letuli Olo Misilagi. Letuli was performing in San Francisco and while practicing, noticed a Hindu Fire eater and also a little girl with lighted batons. The fire eater loaned him some fuel, he wrapped some towels around his knife, and the fire knife dance was born.

Although today many commercial performers perform the dance with short staffs or unbladed knives, this is not authentic fire knife dance and is unacceptable in the Samoas. The knives used by performers in American Samoa are still made of machetes, although they are often dulled for younger dancers.

Competition

Traditional competitions were hotly contested. Their exhibitionists would almost rather die than seek medical care for injuries incurred while performing. Today, modern competitions are held annually at the Polynesian Cultural Center to name the World Fireknife Champion. The competition began in 1992 and is always held during the third week of May. In 2007, the championships were expanded to welcome competitors in a duet category and a women's category.

Champions by year are:
2008 Viavia Tiumalu, Jr. - Orlando, Florida
2007 Andrew "Umi" Sexton - Orlando, Florida
2006 Mikaele Oloa - Orlando, Florida
2005 Mikaele Oloa - Orlando, Florida
2004 Alex Galeai - Laie, Hawaii
2003 David Galeai - Cook Islands
2002 Pati Levasa - Samoa
2001 Pati Levasa - Samoa
2000 David Galeai - Cook Islands
1999 David Galeai - Cook Islands
1998 Pati Levasa - Samoa
1997 Pati Levasa - Samoa
1996 Ifi Soo - Maui, Hawaii
1995 Ifi Soo - Maui, Hawaii
1994 Ifi Soo - Maui, Hawaii
1993 Tauasa Sielu Avea - Laie, Hawaii

Modern use

In the mid 20th century, the ancient traditions were commercialized and westernized. Over time the performing implement has changed. The wooden handle gradually lengthened and the blade got shorter. Eventually, the exposed portion was part of the handle. Some of the moves performed in shows now are more modern and flashy than traditional battle preparations. As such, they are often performed at accelerated speeds. It is probable that the danger of sharpened blades and the demand for multiple daily shows by top performers has caused the sharpened blade to disappear entirely from commercial performances. Now, when one travels to Hawaii, it is quite common to see commercial Fire Knife Dancing performed with wooden or aluminum poles wrapped in towels. These performances are often part of Luau festivities or Polynesian shows that include Poi Ball performances.

See also

References

  • Flaming Sword of Samoa: The Story of the Fire Knife Dance by Freddie Letuli as told to Patricia Letuli. ISBN 978-0-9742672-6-5.
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