Recently a friend sent me an invitation that included the words ‘spinning fire’. I was there in a heartbeat.
We met by Waterloo Station, which was just as well since my feet automatically started out in the direction of the South Bank before my guide set me straight and put us on the road to Leake Street.
Down York Road, past the traditional off-licences, souvenir shops, cafes and office blocks — all sporting an eerie blue shine courtesy of the lights of the London Eye — we arrived at our destination.
Turning left onto Leake Street we were confronted with the striking spectacle of undulating lights spinning in the tunnel, beyond a neat queue of dark cars awaiting their turn in the hand car wash at the entrance.
This is Alex Lee’s Full Moon Spin, an event continued in memory of its eponymous founder by an ever shifting team of volunteers, a fixture bringing together performers and enthusiasts for all things fire spinning.
Usually held on the shore of the Thames, hence the choice of the Friday closest to the full moon for tidal reasons, the event had been decamped for October 2014 to Leake Street due to adverse weather predictions. And while the promised rain never materialised, the decision to decamp was a good one.
The tunnel, a designated legal graffiti area, is a visual feast in itself. Layers upon layers of neon, metallic and technicolour marvels, little by little encroaching on the diameter of the tunnel as each new artistic offering is sprayed over the old. Any photo journalist or art students would be well advised to make the Leake Street tunnel a regular pilgrimage spot to study its ever-shifting appearance.
On this particular night, packed with people and dancing flames, the phrase ‘cave of delights’ is fully appropriate. I do concede that the usual moonlit riverbank venue must have a magic all of its own. But the enclosing graffiti artwork around the tunnel walls and fading visibility in the light haze of smoke, accumulated down in the tunnel depths past the spinners, rendered Leake Street a dramatic and atmospheric venue; the perfect creative space for the spinners to demonstrate their skills to a rapt audience.
There was a little something to tantalise everyone, and many items that your humble author was unaware existed so please forgive any lapses in terminology!
The fire poi, weighted balls coated in paraffin on the end of chains, took centre stage, with the more advanced practitioners not only spinning but also wrapping the flaming weights around various appendages before spinning them out again. Fire staffs (think Little John’s stick, but flaming at both ends) were on display later in abundance; mastery in this case being demonstrated by a ‘Look no hands!’ approach that saw well-toned shoulder blades and necks doing for fire staffs what a little children’s fingers do for majorette sticks. Amazing.
For those who fancied a more hypnotic experience there was accomplished fire hula hoop to be had. Or for the more mettlesome minded, several flaming Katanas made appearances throughout the night.
A little further down the tunnel, away from the immediate vicinity of the spectators, the odd dragonesque ball of fire lit up the walls as fire breathers demonstrated their skills. Closer to the crowd, not needing the space required by the aforementioned, those intending to eat the fire instead casually reposed on the ground, heads thrown back ready for their repast.
Apparently, the fire eating side of things is safer and easier to master than the fire breathing aspect. I can neither confirm nor deny this, but both make for a thrilling spectacle!
There were other non-combustible delights on display too. Hula hoops and poi with LED lights or UV glow, bull whips that cracked louder than the sound of a revving bike, and S-shaped devices (also with LEDs) which transformed the user into something reminiscent of a mini fairground ride when spun. Not forgetting a gentleman who kept a clear acrylic ball (akin to the size found in fortune teller’s tents) balanced atop his head for the better part of two hours.
Seasoned veterans have a care for the safety and wellbeing of ‘newbies’ as they take to the fire until the newbies show themselves to be experienced spin-merchants (usually apparent in a matter of seconds) or prove they are able to pursue the necessary learning process cautiously, and well out of tangling distance from the other spinners around them. Those who have brought ‘practice’ poi (which have cords instead of chains, and often sport floaty scarves attached to their weights for effect), non-flaming hoops, whips, or whose staffs and swords had burned out, were happy to offer impromptu lessons to those eager to foray into learning new skills.
Clearly spinning, especially of the fire variety, is not without its dangers. But cautionary tales were surprisingly few and far between. The majority of accounts ended something like ‘So they learned to never do THAT again!’ as the person recounting the tale pointed to the person in question – the latter invariably spinning away, looking like they were born to do it, and a far cry away from the man or woman in the story who had managed to once get a flaming poi stuck round their neck.
Spectators ranged from those with food and drink supplies and blankets, most of whom wouldn’t have looked out of place spinning the poi themselves (and may well have done so earlier that evening), to bewitched locals and commuters (sporting the odd toddler or bike by way of accessory) who were evidently thankful they had chosen this particular night to take a wander down Leake Street. Professional events photographers with their SLRs, as well as sapped businessmen with their iPads waiting for the carwash, stood by recording the moment for posterity.
An unchoreographed extravaganza, the organic coming together of athletes creating a moving spectacle of art, Alex Lee’s Full Moon Spin is an event to be marvelled at, and participated in, in any way you can. For photographs, details on training, equipment and upcoming events, check out the London Fire Spinners facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/londonfirespinners/