The Samoan fire knife dance is more than a popular spectacle that adds sizzle to a Hawaiian luau. It’s a tradition that has been passed from generation to generation, with each adding a new layer of style, boldness, and skill.
Letuli Olo Misilagi was the first man to add fire to the traditional Samoan ailao, or knife dance. The ailao, a fierce traditional dance that involves the twirling of the nifo oti (war knife), was a pre-war ritual in Samoa used to psyche up warriors.
In his recently published book, Flaming Sword of Samoa: The Story of the Samoan Fire Knife Dance (2004, Watermark Publishing), Letuli revealed how he got the idea to add fire to his knife dance routine. “(In 1946), I was asked to perform my knife dance at a Shriners Convention in San Francisco,” he wrote. “A number of entertainers were practicing their routines at Golden State Park. Among them was a Hindu man named Abe Sing, who rehearsed his fire-eating routine. There was also a young girl practicing her baton twirling, and the baton had light bulbs attached to each end.
“I stared at the fire-eater, then the baton twirler. The baton twirler, then the fire-eater. And just like that, I had an idea to add ‘sizzle’ to my fire knife dance.”
Letuli died in July 2003 in Honolulu during the writing of the book. The “father” of the Samoan Fire Knife Dance was 84. Flaming Sword of Samoa is available at Hawaii bookstores as well as through the publisher.
Today, of course, the Samoan fire knife dance is a show-stopping staple in Polynesian revues or luaus. There are fire knife dance competitions held throughout the Pacific, including the annual World Fire Knife Dance Competition at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) on Oahu.
Each May, competitors from around the world gather on the island’s North Shore to display their fire knife skills. There’s even a Junior World Fire Knife Competition, which spotlights youngsters ranging in ages from 12 to 17.
Says event founder Pulefano Galeai, “This unique event combines great athletic skill, unflinching bravery and ever-present danger to bring out the best in these competitors. It’s exciting to see the culture of Samoa take center stage with participation from people around the world.”