Belfast Telegraph

The fiery female who finds flames so much fun

by Chris McCann

Play with fire and you will get burnt goes the old metaphor that reminds us that every action has a consequence.

Whoever coined the phrase had obviously never considered the likes of Bangor woman Clare Palmer coming along.

For the 32-year-old’s career has been on something of an upward trajectory since she made the bold move from journalism into fire dancing in the mid-Noughties.

Owner of business, she is currently balancing the daredevil career with sub-editing shifts at a central Belfast newspaper office.

And it’s in the relatively safer setting of the latter that the Community Telegraph meets her to ask what exactly drew her to a career that most people know little about.

The answer, perhaps inevitably, lies far beyond the humdrum life of a city newsroom... and in the more exotic surroundings of Australia.

“I was backpacking and was working with a number of newspapers in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth,” explains the former Glenlola Collegiate pupil.

“But in between that time, I had gone to a fire day. It was a fantastic experience, I couldn’t believe that these people were able to move through fire, I just thought it was so graceful.”

In Brisbane, an intrigued Clare began to learn how to ‘swing poi’ — to dance with fire.

“Poi came from the Maori people of New Zealand,” she says. “It originated from warriors who used rocks wrapped up in flax, to beat if off their arms and legs to improve strength and co-ordination.

“Over the years that developed into a tribal dance and whereas the male would do The Haka, the female would have little cotton balls — poi — that they would spin around their body as a reference to what the male warriors would do.

“So as I was travelling around Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia, I was meeting other artists just randomly on beaches, where I learned as I was going along.”

For Clare, what is known in the fire dancing community as ‘your first burn’ was something she’ll never forget. “I think every fire performer will remember their first burn.

“The only one as far as I can remember was back when I was learning, I wasn’t dancing or doing shows or anything at the time.

“I was a little bit cocky and I wrapped a burning poi around my wrist, which gets very hot. It’s like sticking your hand on an oven tray. So when I unwrapped it again, it left a little bit of a bracelet,” she laughs.

“But I learned not to do that again.

“It’s just an incredible sensation though. Most people will look on and see you not particularly confident in what you’re doing, but the confidence comes with time and practice.

“But on that first go, you’re swinging fire past your head and the most notable thing is the incredible noise as it travels past your ears; woosh woosh.

“You can close your eyes and can still see the firelight travel past you.

“And you realise very quickly that poi is a rhythmic thing and once you become more confident, it actually becomes very meditative.

“I still remember the fear of that first time though and thinking, this is fire and it will burn you if you’re not respectful of it.”

I can’t help but wonder if the danger aspect is part of the fun? It’s not that clear-cut though, claims Clare.

“It’s not the sense of danger we enjoy, but the danger does focus your mind.

“I mean, if you were walking across Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, you would watch your footing. It’s the same with fire, if you’re spinning it around your body, you’re going to be careful where you put your hands. And through that state you become very engrossed in it, particularly when you are moving along to the music.”

Clare has danced and ‘spun fire’ to quite an eclectic mix; from Irish music to more ‘hippie tunes’.

“Personally, I like spinning to slow relaxed sort of tunes,” says Clare.

“The reason for that is the slower you go, the more controlled you are, and the more graceful it all is. I enjoy that zoning out.”

One place Clare wasn’t zoned out, was back in Ireland in 2004, when she returned from her travels determined to carry on her love affair with the live flame.

“When I got back, there were very few people doing it.

“But I started meeting more and more people who were doing this around Ireland.

“We started gathering as a community and having fire gatherings.”

Clare was travelling the length and breadth of the country; from Cork to Dublin, to Belfast.

But, the community feeling soon gave way to an appetite for a business venture.

“Obviously people had seen what we were doing and were asking us to do work.

“I wanted to do it properly so I set up my business,”

The company started performing at

corporate events, weddings and festivals — including the hip Electric Picnic — across the country and even led the Dublin St Patrick’s Day parade three years in a row.

But a personal tragedy led Clare back into journalism in 2006, just as her new career was moving along rather nicely.

“My mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and I knew it was going to be difficult to maintain the fire stuff. I started working with the Belfast Telegraph two or three days a week, to pay the bills.”

Clare’s mother passed away in July 2007. Despite going back to journalism and drifting from her fire work, Clare saw positives.

“The things is, it’s always good to have as many strings to your bow as possible.

“It’s good to have the newspaper work, but to have something creative as well.”

As we talk, Clare has plans to do more work on fire, even if it is a balancing act with the journalism.

Her CV is impressive, having featured in a number of movies — including Becoming Jane —and played at the Waterfront Hall, Dublin’s Aviva Stadium and on the BBC.

She has a BA Honours degree in media and English from the University of Ulster, Coleraine, as well as a postgraduate degree in Newspaper Journalism.

Few would bet against her as she continues on her journey. So, what does she see for herself in the coming years?

“I hope Firepoise is still going, we’re still doing shows, being innovative and producing new ideas,” she says.

And her advice to anyone who is interested in entering the industry? What makes a good fire performer?

“Someone who knows what they are doing, who is safe and in control. They must have respect for the fire and the fuel. For me a good performer will respect their space, their audience and their fire.

“And of course, make it look beautiful.”

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