Dancing with Fire


Annie Opel ‘
17, likes to play with fire. No, I’m not talking about lighting up matches just to watch them burn like a crazed pyromaniac. Nor am I talking about the metaphorical sense of that expression. She is a fire dancer, and she can literally light up a room (figuratively speaking, of course — or else that would be a fire hazard!)
It all started during her gap year between high school and Harvard. For the second
half of the year, Annie moved to St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, to intern for the Nature Conservancy. When she arrived on the island, Annie didn’t know a soul besides her mentor, Lisa. Lisa was a fire dancer. Annie reminisces, “I remember
when I landed, I went straight to Lisa’s fire show to meet her, and so she could help me get moved into my intern housing.” Since then, Annie and Lisa became good friends, and Lisa became her mentor for more than just working at the Nature Conservancy. Slowly but surely, after spending all of her spare time with Lisa and her fire-dancing troupe, Annie learned to fire dance, too.
Interestingly, the first step for Annie in learning to fire dance was to learn how to hula hoop. “All I would do after work was just hula hoop because I didn’t have very many friends, and the friends I did have were all fire dancers,” she recalls. When she wasn’t practicing hula hooping, she would attend all of the fire shows and help with
safety and setting up. Her graduation from hula hooping to dancing with fire came
when Lisa asked her to hula-hoop at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration on the island, and
to perform in the background of the fire dancing shows. “Once they saw I was good
enough at hula hooping and they were confident in me, they gave me the smallest little prop: a stick with fire on the end of it.”
Though this transition seems anticlimactic, Annie soon had to step up to the challenge of learning more fire dancing tricks when the other dancers in the troupe — called Kiki and the Flaming Gypsies — no longer had the availability to do gigs. She quickly went from her dancing with her seemingly measly fire stick to doing three to four hotel gigs a week with Lisa. “It was definitely a steep learning curve!” she remembers. But if anyone who has seen Annie perform will tell you, she certainly knows what she is doing when she’s fire dancing. At Harvard, Annie has continued to fire dance. “When I first got here, I really wanted to start a fire dancing club,” she admits. “But as a freshman, I was totally overcommitted and had too much going on. That being said, I would hula-hoop in the yard alone. Soon I became known as hula-hoop girl, and it led me to meeting a bunch of people! I even taught a lot of the freshman football players how to hula-hoop.” In fact, you may have seen Annie and her hula-hoops and other fire-dancing props at Camp Harvard and Yard Fest. “I have so many people approaching me who are really curious and enthusiastic. People want to learn. I haven’t taught anyone how to do anything with fire because there is no good space for it and I don’t teach anyone consistently enough, but I always let people hula hoop or see my poi (a fire-dancing prop)- even Dean Khurana!”
Unfortunately, the City of Cambridge has deemed fire-dancing illegal, which has prevented Annie from performing with fire at any Harvard-sponsored events. However, it is legal for her to fire-dance on private property. “Because I can only perform on private property, this means I can solely do it for the final clubs on campus. I love performing there but I wish there were more accessible places to doit. Of course, an undergraduate dancing with fire is a total liability, even though I’m covered by insurance.”
The first time Annie fire-danced at Harvard was the fall of 2016 at the Owl Club, when Kiki, the leader of her fire-dancing troupe from St. Croix was in town with her boyfriend. “I had told the Owl guys about my fire-dancing and asked if I could do it for the party, and they said yes,” Annie recalls. “Everyone at the party freaked out when they saw it — nobody had seen anything like this before. I was so glad to have Kiki and Neal with me because they have so much experience. Now everyone knows me as the fire-dancer, and other clubs started asking me to fire-dance, too.”
Annie credits these opportunities to fire-dance with making her feel comfortable at Harvard. “It has become my “thing”, and given me my own niche. As a performer I
can hide behind that costume and embody that character, and that gives me a lot of
confidence and a sense of belonging.” To Annie, performing as a fire-dancer has
been an incredibly empowering experience in general. When she learned to fire-
dance from Lisa, she remembers how Lisa never treated her like an amateur,
or was belittling or patronizing, which gave her a lot of confidence in her ability to fire-dance. Another empowering aspect of fire dancing was gaining body confidence. “When you fire dance, you can’t wear a lot of clothes, especially when you hula hoop. I was pretty body conscious straight out of high school, like a lot of women, and was
performing in clothes that bared my stomach and my legs. But it was for functional reasons, and I never felt like people were even watching my body anyway. I could just do my thing and dance with fire, and that is what people appreciate.”
Caroline Gentile ’17 (Cgentile@college.harvard.edu) had way too much fun coming up
with fire-related puns for this article.