August 17, 2004
It is a love of dance that took Ashley LaCroix to the fire’s brink.
She hasn’t burned herself yet.
When the 24-year-old South Shore native isn’t bagging groceries at Raley’s, she’s dancing with fire, literally – an art form she became fascinated with while in Mexico and taught herself three years ago.
Known as poi (pronounced “poy”), she teaches the ancient Polynesian practice of fire spinning to anyone who has got the patience and an appreciation for the art.
Recently, LaCroix took time out of her schedule to teach three sessions of the dance to about 20 participants at Lake Tahoe Community College.
She discovered the art form by accident as a student studying in Mexico. She saw a woman on a beach dancing with fire and became fascinated by it. She began learning the moves herself and about a year and a half ago, added fire to the mix.
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“My favorite thing to do is dance,” she said. “When you pair dancing with this kind of danger element – fire around your head – there is something spiritual about it. You hear the flames going around you and you feel the heat. Often when I dance I forget people are around me. It transports me into another world.”
The music she uses to dance varies from African drum beat, to Latin to electronica.
“You could say most forms of dance are therapeutic,” she said. “There is a spiritual release.”
The same holds true for Michelle Voss of Truckee, who also performs the dance.
The massage therapist originally picked up the dance form as a way to strengthen her upper body and fell in love with it.
This summer, Voss is traveling around the West Coast to festivals in the hopes of one day becoming a professional poi performer. LaCroix has some luck professionally, earning money performing in Mexico, teaching the classes and performing in between acts at a Blue Turtle Seduction concert.
Poi was brought to the islands from New Zealand by Maori warriors, who swung rocks tied from flax ropes as a way to stay in shape for battle. The twirling kept their shoulders strong while loosening their wrists in preparation for fighting with clubs. Women adopted it as a dance form and ritual. Voss took immediately to the age-old sport.
“It takes you back to being a child and spinning a baton,” she said. “Its youthfulness, the energy it releases, the strength it builds, the freedom of movement, the meditation.”
Like LaCroix, Voss is self-taught. They both use balls made of Kevlar wicking attached to two finger loops on a chain. Lit by lighter fluid, the balls can stay on fire for three to five minutes. The two women swing the flaming ball and chain in circles in front and back, through their legs, while kneeling, dancing or laying on the floor. The whirling flames create a dance of their own, a hypnotizing movement of light that creates different patterns of flashing swirls and circles.
“I dance to whatever moves my heart to the flame,” Voss said.
– Melissa Siig of the Tribune News Service contributed to this story.