Hawai'i

Fire Dancers in Honolulu at Kapiolani Park

Trial by Fire is a self-described “arts community” that recently put on one of its regular fire dance performances in Kapiolani Park in Honolulu one Sunday mid-June. Police with riot sirens broke up the gathering. The next week, the fire dancers were there again, but this time, a man in the fire circle with a megaphone gave everyone a friendly reminder that open containers were illegal and that police would break up the gathering if all present didn’t observe social distancing. The Honolulu Police Department didn’t need to break up the crowd the following week. A rain storm did that job just as well.

Grace can sometimes feel accidental, arriving when you least expect it. You go for a walk in the park, and suddenly find yourself surrounded by fire dancers and music. Yes, the fire dancers asked for donations, but to give a gift for something freely given is quite different than purchasing a ticket to the Hilton Luau. In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri ended each section of his tryptich poem with a reference to the “love that moves the sun and other stars,” and indeed the love that burns the sun and other stars sometimes can touch us closer or further, depending on where we are and how closely we are paying attention. Art that isn’t created for monetary gain or capitalistic pursuit can feel a little like grace in that way, a little like undeserved attention, the miracle that arrives without asking. Dante, in exile, wrote the Divine Comedy, not sure if it would be read widely. More likely he might have been more concerned it would get him burned by the pope (he puts popes in hell, after all). He wrote it while living on the hospitality of friends in Ravenna (a literal backwater swamp in Italy) after his exile from Florence, where he had been quite the life of the party and the city. Dante’s cosmic poem is centered around fire. There are fires in hell, around which the shades swarm, and there are fires in heaven that inflame each soul with divine light. Fire is a metaphor for the spirit, for the soul, for God itself.

It is quite possible that humans have been drawn together by fire ever since we discovered that we could control it. Trial by Fire doesn’t need to try very hard to draw a crowd. To be mesmerized by fire is to be human. The sun set. The fire keeper lit the fire. The music began. The dancers danced. People drew close to one another, not in defiance of social distancing, but because we were doing what fire has always done for us.

Keeper of the Flame. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Keeper of the Flame. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Not far from where the fire dancers danced, you’ll find a pyramid of stones capped by a single flame that burns at night. The cairn is gated, and there’s a sign that warns trespassers that deadly force is permitted beyond the gate. No explanation is given. The fire burns. Small offerings can be seen nestled between the imperfections of the rocks. The place is not to be violated. That is all.

The fire dance performance was permitted to go on for about an hour before the police arrived with their riot sirens, managing to frighten dogs and children alike. Blue and red lights snuffed out the fires, sending the spinning flames scattering, the dancers running. Dogs and families dispersed.

As my partner and I biked away, the scene felt like a rained-out baseball game. By the time we left, there were so many cop cars in the park, a passing driver might have assumed there had been a shooting or some other atrocity.

Joy, like a flame, is a fragile thing. A strong wind, rain shower, strong word, or show of force can quickly disturb it.

There was joy in Kapiolani Park for a brief moment, palpable, like the heat of a passing flame. After so many months locked away from people, there was a triumph as the fire dancers spun in circles, performed their acrobatics, and families watched on in awe and wonder. We almost were a community. I felt hope.

There weren’t more people in the park than there had been gathered during the day, and certainly no more people were gathered in the park than there had been tourists gathering at the local hotels or on the beach of Waikiki during the day. There was no riot. Nor were the fire dancers promoting drunkenness or drug abuse. In fact, on their Instagram (@trialbyfire808), their mission is to “nurture the fine arts, community, original music, dance, and the arts in an alcohol free and substance conscious environment.” The Trial by Fire Community Website seems to offer the promise of future events in nature and in the community. I hope they succeed.

I can accept that the police would want to break up a gathering in our pandemic times, but something tells me that the police will always be a lurking presence at Trial by Fire. The state cannot tolerate people gathering without capitalistic purpose. We tolerate a crowd at a bar because money is being spent and tax revenue generated.

We live in a perverse culture that privileges capital and its attending addictions and obsessions over community, creativity, connection, and certainly over nurturing the spirit of life that burns within each of us. Tech billionaires who don’t pay taxes have tried to sell us community through social media, and it has left us more disconnected than ever (Jaron Lanier writes beautifully about this in his book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now). We sit over the digital flames of our phone, alone night after night, engaging in a perverse show of connection that generates revenue from advertisements. As an aside, Instagram seems to have finally “cracked” me. After years of being inscutable to Instagram’s advertisement algorithm, the program finally understands what I’m seeking. It’s selling me a lot of community-forming talk apps, talk therapy, and neurodivergent planning apps. For the first time, I almost want the things being sold. I don’t see this as progress.

The pyramid of stones not far from Kapiolani Park is indeed a sacred space. I did a little research. Beneath the flame lie the bones of the Kanaka Maoli displaced when developers dug holes to build the foundations of hotels that line the waterfront of Waikiki and beyond. Indigenous people believe that the bones hold the “mana,” or power, of a deceased person. A newspaper report dating back to 1898 tells about what happened to workers digging holes in the Helumoa coconut grove (where the kings of Hawai’i kept their royal residences and where the Royal Hawaiian hotel now stands). As a result of the digging, one of the coconut trees toppled. “Flung high in the air by the catapultic motion of the roots was a mass of human bones–entire skulls, femurs, vertebra, ribs, everything.” One of the skeletons landed “in a sitting posture with arms extended over the head, as if the subject had been warding off a blow when struck down to his ultimate tomb.” (Source: Hawaii Digital Newspaper Project (University of Hawai’i at Manoa Liberary with Library of Congress cited as original source.) Could the signs have been any clearer? Back at the cairn of stones, the monument feels vulnerable. We like to say the violations of the past could never happen again, but I’m not sure at all.

That the state forced the general public to leave land set aside for the recreation of the public (land which historically belonged to the kings of Hawai’i) on an island with such a deep legacy of violation of displacement is a deep commentary on where we stand today. We live in a country where police violence has become routine, where men of color cannot walk through a park at night without the fear of being shot in the back. We live on an island where the government still owes a debt of land to Kanaka Maoli of native ancestry, and where it continues to drag its feet in paying that debt (ProPublica & the Honolulu Star-Advertiser recently did an excellent investigative report, and on June 15th the Star-Advertiser reported that Deb Haaland spoke with deep emotion as she announced the transfer of 80 acres to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands; “reducing by just a fraction a wait-list of 11,000 Hawaiians seeking residential homesteads on O’ahu”). 

I often wonder why the police move more swiftly to remove fire dancers from the park than they move to stop domestic violence, faster than they move to help people suffering from mental health crises. As we left the park, a woman who seemed to be high or coming down from meth screamed under a tree. Nobody came to help her, even as the park swarmed with police.

As far as I’m concerned, what happened last week was a civil rights violation of everyone involved, a First Amendment violation, and I’d go as far as to say it violates the right to practice religion. Art touches the spirit. The police did something to my spirit when they broke up the fire dancers.

Either way, we need more fire keepers. Maybe the performance was a call to action. We are all keepers of the flame. If we scatter when the sirens or rains come, the fires will all go out.

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.