In a small, high-walled backyard in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Jake Lucas, 26, was dunking the eight wicks of his dragon staff into a can of fuel. Steph Lucas, his wife, casually lit the wicks, and within seconds Jake was in the center of a blazing inferno of orange flames.
I shrunk back in my chair. His staff was maybe five feet long, and the backyard seemed to be about twelve feet square. Jake began his act, rolling the staff up his arms, down his back, turning the flames into pinwheels. At one point, he fumbled the staff and caught a patch of grass on fire. He was unfazed—but the danger was real. His roommate stood by with a fire-safety blanket, and Steph kept a full face burn kit nearby, in case a sudden wind blew the fire off course.
Jake, Steph, and their roommate, Alex Meleg, are three members of the Empire Fire Collective, a fifty-person fire-performance group that will perform at Burning Man at the closing ceremony on September 5th. Fifty collectives will perform simultaneously—that’s 2,500 people swinging around rope darts and double staves—and for their efforts they’ll get discounted tickets. It’s the Empire Fire Collective’s third Burning Man. The group has been quietly practicing in obscure city parks all summer, nimbly avoiding the notice of police. “When Burning Man asked us about safety, we said we have a lot of experience putting out our fires quickly,” said Steph. They’d invited me into their backyard to watch a practice.
Steph, 27, was the most experienced of the three spinners present, having entered the world of flow arts (which includes many mesmerizing forms of dancing with props, such as hula hooping and contact juggling) through a bellydancing class she took a few years ago. Awed by videos of bellydancers with flaming fans, she became determined to learn the fire arts herself, and started off with a class with the legendary teacher Claire de Luxe. From there, Steph inspired Jake, a writer and comedian, to try firespinning—“It seemed like a good couples thing to do,” he said with a shrug—and, after a long search for a venue that would allow it, they performed a 20-minute fire show at their wedding.
Steph and her roommates have never gotten in trouble for rehearsing in their backyard. On the contrary, no one seems to know. Only one window looks straight onto the backyard, and no neighbor appeared to stare at the phantasmagoria of burning Russian fans and swinging fire poi that was taking place just a few yards away.
For those who have been properly trained, Steph assured me, severe injuries are rare. It’s crucial to wear cotton clothing, use the right fuels, and avoid “fleshing” (rubbing flaming torches over your skin) unless you’ve recently shaved, she said, in which case it won’t hurt.
After you breathe fire, you end up soaked in oil; it’s “like rubbing pizza all over your face,” said Jake. Steph recalled the one time she neglected the post-practice shower, and woke up with such bad chemical burns she had to miss two days of work.
Meleg, 28, an art mover by day, moved to the center of the yard, swilling clear oil. He atomized the oil through his lips (picture the vigorous spitting of a trumpet player), and simultaneously lit the cloud with a torch, sending giant fireballs into the night air. I was close enough to feel some spit—or was it unlit oil?—drip onto my clothes.
The fire was only part of the reason why I’d felt like I’d entered an alternate universe. Steph is the Director of Horticulture at Madison Square Park, so her backyard was a fragrant jungle of bizarre succulents and vines. Inside the apartment, a small office held a tangle of mad-scientist equipment—beakers, wires, and a sterile box in which Stephanie planned to germinate exotic plants, maybe orchids.
Alex’s room, too, was dominated by strange equipment, and he showed me his PCR machine for cloning DNA, his 3D printer, his book titled “Nanotribology and Nanomechanics.” A nervous black cat, Shrodinger, prowled around Steph’s stilts. “He’s afraid to go outside because he’s afraid of the sky,” Steph said, “so the whole house is his box.” What was this place? Aside from making me feel like I had the most mundane hobbies ever, the apartment reminded me that there is no accounting for the extraordinary microcosms you can find on a nondescript block of Brooklyn.
Back outside, Steph danced to Beirut while balancing a flaming sword on her head. She breathed fire with evident skill—she could make a cloud nine feet high. Then she brought out a levistick, on which a flame is suspended, as if by magic, on invisible wires. JFK-bound planes passed low overhead, and somewhere above them, the Perseid Meteor Shower was putting on a historic show. But all of us in the yard, even Jake and Alex, who have spent scores of hours preparing for Burning Man, were transfixed by the flames between Steph’s hands.
What is it about fire? Jake thought for a moment. “The human brain automatically forms patterns wherever it can,” he said. And the shapes and patterns that emerge from the fire are just so fascinating to our brains, we’re instantly rewarded by putting them together.”
Photography by Molly Dektar
Molly Dektar is from North Carolina. She has an MFA from Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn.