Twice a week, they gather on the levee by the Mississippi to play with fire.
Some spin blazing hula hoops around their waists while others twirl flaming staffs above their heads or swing sizzling chains of fire, lighting the night sky.
Small crowds gather to watch the Baton Rouge Fire Guild.
On this fall night, Odalys Machin, 51, walks along the levee with her 15-month-old granddaughter, Danya Sarina Hernandez. Both are transfixed by the twirling flames.
“You are artists,” she tells the performers as she walks past.
“They are lighting up the city in Baton Rouge, lighting up the river,” she says.
Many of the performers have practiced fire spinning for years in friends’ backyards or at parties and festivals. Wade Cantu, 29, created the group’s Facebook page earlier this year to connect the Baton Rouge area performers.
With about 30 group members, a handful of Fire Guild members perform every Wednesday and Friday night on the levee at Florida Street, with the Capitol and downtown rising behind them.
Even as a crowd gathers, Shannon Tyndall is alone with her hula hoop ablaze.
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She spins the fire hoop around her waist and her arms, the rhythm of the hoop and the hiss of the flame mesmerizing.
“It’s exhilarating and kind of therapeutic in a way,” says Tyndall, 25. “All you can feel is the heat. And all you can hear is the flame.”
The flames rise off five Kevlar balls attached to the hoop, something you probably won’t see except at a circus or a counter-culture festival like Burning Man.
Those still learning use hoops or weighted chains called poi illuminated by bright electric lights, perfecting their moves before adding flames.
“After a while when you keep practicing, you kind of forget about everything else in the world and get lost in performance art,” says Cantu, who spins the flaming poi.
When Tyndall, a marine biology student at LSU, started hula-hooping six years ago, she liked the exercise and the choreography. Four years ago, a friend introduced her to fire hoops, and she became addicted.
“You are just engulfed in the flame and it mutes everything out, it almost mutes the world out,” she says.
Tyndall says her oven has burned her more times than her hoop. But she carefully chooses her clothing. On this night she wears a flowing cotton skirt and a form-fitting pink cotton tank top. Synthetic fibers like polyester will melt, she says.
While Tyndall hoops, Cantu spins his poi, one in each hand, weaving geometric patterns.
Cantu considers the poi a type of therapy, something to help burn away the stress of the world.
Off to the side, away from the crowd, John Scott, a 25-year-old Guild member, lights up his 5-foot-long staff with flaming Kevlar wicks on each end. Flames bounce a few feet high as he throws off excess fuel.
When Scott begins twirling the staff, the heat can be felt 10 feet away. There is a slight breeze coming off the river, and Scott keeps his distance from the rest of the performers.
“You have to watch the wind,” he says later. “If the wind is picking up the flame and throwing it in one direction, I have to watch.”
He spins the staff, jumps over it and kicks it in the air like a hacky sack.
Although he only started using the fire staff last year, he has learned quickly. He was fascinated by flambeau performers he watched after the Southdowns Mardi Gras parade as a kid, and he mimics the Hawaiian and Fijian fire dancers who use a similar prop.
Scott practices daily, but not always with fire.
“Fire is a wonderful motivator, though,” he says. “It makes you stay away from it. It’s a good training tool.”