By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Jun 27, 2006 at 5:23 AM
As Milwaukee's fire performance troupe, Arson Etiquette pretty much took the saying, "If you play with fire, you're going to get burned" and snuffed it. Sure, the group is not without accident or injury -- and they've got a few battle scars to prove it -- but for the most part, the group's five members have seemingly tamed the flame and are using it to entertain and downright amaze the rest of us.

Arson Etiquette's five members -- founder KT, Susie Carlson, Jeff Lowrance, Shawnon Morris and Roy Pluskota -- are, to the horror of moms everywhere, playing with fire for fun. And they don't stop there -- they are also eating, spinning, spitting, breathing and painting with it.

The group practices several fire dancing techniques, including poi spinning, which originated as an exercise of sorts by the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand to increase their flexibility and strength in their hands and arms and improve coordination.

"It was mostly women who used to spin poi," says KT, who began teaching poi spinning and fire staff classes at Bucketworks a year and a half ago. "But it wasn't with fire. Poi is essentially any instrument with a weighted end that you can swing. People didn't start setting them on fire until way more recently."

Meeting for weekly practice, each Arson Etiquette member brings his or her own poi set -- some are homemade using tennis balls and rope, others a bit more heavy duty and utilizing dog chains or ball chains. These practice poi, however, are never lit. For actual performances, or even nights the group feels like "lighting up," fire poi -- two Kevlar wicks attached to chains -- is dipped into a fuel of the spinner's choice.

"We'll use kerosene, white gas, lamp oil," says six-year fire veteran KT. "But never alcohol or gasoline."

With wicks lit, a safety spotter on hand and hair dampened by water, Arson Etiquette engages in fire dances using a variety of tools, such as a fire staff, torches, a fire snake and the very "Freddy"-like fire fingers. They are as brave as they are talented and professional, so, needless to say, don't try this at home.

“For fire painting you dip the wick in fuel and you rub the wick on your skin, leaving a trail of fuel,” says Morris, who has been spinning fire for a year and a half. “That fuel then ignites, leaving a trail of fire and it looks like you're painting it on your skin.”

Morris admits she’s been burned -- as have most spinners -- but says it’s never as bad or painful as people might expect it to be.

"There's this fear that I think most humans have for fire, and this fear is something that fire dancers have to learn to control," she says. "Once you learn to control it you're able to do your moves without worrying so much about it. You are aware without being scared. You have to respect the fire at all times. You have to be aware of the fire or else it's going to burn you. And you do get burned, but you’re not so afraid of it that you can't move and you don't flow with it, because it is something you want to have fun with and you want to dance. You can't be rigid. Fire is a friend, but it's a friend that can bite you.”

KT agrees. “You do get burned, but what people don't realize is that it takes a lot to actually catch on fire. We've all got burns on our arms, but it's not the fire that's burning you, it's the metal that's heated up.”

For every performance, Arson Etiquette comes equipped with a safety -- someone not spinning and keeping his or her eyes on the performer at all times -- flame resistant cloths, wet towels, buckets of water and natural fiber clothing. Fire extinguishers, KT says, are not typically used on people, as they can be suffocating.

But while the safety measures are a regimented, standard practice, there aren’t many other rules to which fire spinners must adhere, KT says.

“I always say to my students that there is no single way to do things. If you can figure out how to make anything from your imagination, and make it safely, then you can do it.”

Pluskota, the fastest -- and slowest, he claims -- poi spinner of the group, works like a magician, creating flaming optical illusions around his body. Carlson, with a degree is modern dance, is graceful with her fire, her body always in sync with her poi. Each performer brings a different spirit to the show, making it an experience that is never duplicated.

Arson Etiquette offers introduction to poi and staff classes at Bucketworks that cost $60 for six classes.
Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”