Normally the Ukiyo Dojo, a modest space in an industrial stretch of Warren, is filled with kids and young adults tossing out flying kicks and precise punches.
Friday nights, however, are a bit different.
Starting around 8:30, a stream of bizarre characters begins trickling in, hauling light-up hula hoops, knives, a unicycle, torches and "fans" made of metal. As the room fills, there's chatter and laughter, delightfully controlled chaos as techno blasts in the background. A girl in phat pants and brightly colored arm-warmers takes a running leap and expertly twists her frame into an elaborate flip, while the unicyclist zooms around her wildly, occasionally taking a face-first dive (with a smile). A tall, gangly man whoops and hula hoops like a crazed chimpanzee, and a couple of pierced and tattooed kids pass out temporary tattoos depicting pieces of shit swathed in toilet paper.
And that's before they even get to the fire-breathing.
This is just a small sample of the weekly madness of Fire Fabulon, a tightly knit group of performers who blend dance, acrobatics and improv with blazing props. A freak-show conducted by extraordinarily nice and mostly normal people, the group's numer one priority is having fun lots of it. However, just a few short months ago, Fire Fabulon's future was threatened when their home base and practice area, the dojo, went up in flames.
And the ironic part? The cause of the blaze wasn't the group's fiery antics, but an unfortunately placed candle during preparations for a party on New Year's Eve.
Fortunately, thanks to close ties and generous friends, Fire Fabulon has managed to rebuild in record time and are stronger, and brighter, than ever.
Tall, wiry, strikingly handsome, Tim March is a fifth-degree black belt in the Korean martial art of Tang Soo Do, and has run the Ukiyo Dojo since 1994. The blue-dreadlocked March, who performs as "Tim TV," was inspired to start Fire Fabulon after attending the 2000 Burning Man festival in the middle of Nevada's Black Rock Desert. The weeklong annual event attracts upwards of 25,000 people unified by art, performance and fire. (Most FF members are longtime attendees and active participants in the closely knit community of Burning Man regulars who hail from Michigan.)
"When I got back, I wanted to find other people of like minds," March says as he surveys a room of his performers twisting, flipping, gyrating and knife-throwing. "Everyone gets to come in here and play, to be a little kid. It's strongly encouraged, almost required, to laugh at yourself."
Though March had no previous experience with breathing, eating or otherwise performing with fire, he says his extensive training in martial arts was easily transferable to fire skills. March and the founding members learned much about technique and safety from the North American Fire Arts Association (nafaa.org) and homeofpoi.com. Poi, one of the group's primary features, is a celebratory Maori dance prop that looks like a stretchy band of fabric with a ball attached to each end. At practice, dancers hone their chops with two non-flaming tennis balls on a string, practicing technique for months before ever attempting to use fire. The group isn't limited to fire play, though. There's lots of circus sideshow stuff: juggling on stilts, clowning, sword swallowing, and March is particularly fond of glass-walking and the ol' bed of nails.
They perform once or twice a month, at venues ranging from dive bars to the Detroit Institute of Arts, and have traveled to Mexico and worked a political convention at a hockey arena in British Columbia.
The blonde, perky and pretty performer known as Monkey is by day Becca Morgan, a math lecturer at Wayne State University. (She also holds a Ph.D in immunology research.) One of the group's core members, she's highly skilled in poi, fire fingers (metal prongs that are lit at the tips think Edward Scissorhands on fire) and palm torches (essentially, hand-sized pots of fuel.)
Her husband Zorch, also known as Kurt Wallace, the brains behind the Zombie Walk of Super Bowl XL, is a strategic planner at Ford. During any given practice he may be swinging poi while wearing a Mexican poncho, a black-and-white skirt and combat boots: a far cry from business casual.
Alexandra Bojcuniak is FF's youngest member at 15. She trains five days a week under March at the dojo, and join FF about a year ago. A cast on her forearm does not stop her from performing a variety of flips and round-offs on one of the many mats strewn across the floor. Her parents are fully supportive; they love the atmosphere, particularly the fact that FF members are required to perform sober.
Jello, or Joseph Patterson, 28, joined about three years ago, when he built a flamethrower for a friend of a friend. A chemical engineer at Ford, Patterson walks on stilts, and juggles clubs, knives and fire. His favorite part of the FF experience?
"Everyone's so free here," he says, teetering atop his stilts. "People don't bring their outside lives into this, so it's a drama-less, incredibly creative world."
March speculates that many FF members find the group so rewarding because it provides an escape from their high-pressure day jobs. "Fire dancing is very liquid," he says. "People find it therapeutic when they are able to calm down and feel the flow."
The laid-back mentality does not apply to safety, however. Before members can burn with Fire Fabulon, they must be trained as safety technicians, which includes learning the types of fuels the group uses and their burning temperatures, as well as mastering first aid and emergency procedures. During shows, designated safety techs stay within a few steps of performers at all times, armed with wet towels and fire extinguishers.
The precautions have paid off. In the five-plus years that Fire Fabulon has been in existence, there have been no serious injuries.
The dojo, unfortunately, has not fared so well.
On New Year's Eve, as March was getting dressed for festivites, he got the call: "You need to get here now your dojo is on fire!" March recalls: "The hard part was deciding what to wear. What do you wear when your dojo is on fire? Hmm ..."
A single candle placed too close to curtains managed to scorch the entire top floor of the two-story building, and caused moderate water damage to the ground floor. All the windows were broken and mirrors and mats destroyed.
At first it seemed bleak; the building was uninsured. But March managed to replace or repair all the damaged equipment through generous donations from the Burning Man community and dojo families. Together, the groups raised over $2,000 in cash, supplies and Home Depot cards.
March says he was overwhelmed with support from members and friends, who came out in the freezing cold to haul out the sopping, stinking, charred debris. Many worked long into the night over New Year's Eve and Day, and returned over the next week to pull 12-hour workdays cleaning.
"From the moment of the phone call to the moments watching the fire to the weeks of work, I never had any worry, never any fear, not really even any negative feelings at all," March says. "The martial arts have taught me to handle crisis well and just view it as another challenge."
He adds, "The friends I was surrounded with never whined or cried or treated me with pity. It was more an attitude of, 'Let's go! What's next?' So it was easy to stay positive."
This perspective is shared by Wallace and Morgan.
Wallace says, "At first we were devastated by the fire the damage seemed pretty extensive, and the extreme cold and huge mounds of soaking wet debris made for a miserable scene. But it turned into a fabulous show of community support the dojo people, the fire folks and Burning Man people all came together and worked like crazy over the first couple weeks of the new year. Our crew totally kicked the fire's ass."
Morgan echoes this sentiment, adding, "The fire was so scary but now it feels like a positive turning point. So many people and ideas and carpentry and paint came together lickety-split. It was amazing."
Today, the main job that remains is replacing all the windows an expensive and weather-dependent job that March is hoping to begin this spring.
In the end, Wallace says, "The fire was frightening, but Fire Fabulon burns a lot hotter. That's the key. Good people can outshine any disaster."
Visit Fire Fabulon at firefabulon.com. They next perform Friday-Saturday, April 14-15, at Circus Detroit at the Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St., Detroit, 313-832-8890.Monica Price is a freelance writer. Sarah Klein is Metro Times culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]