Dancing with Fire

Eleni Cameron (right) and Angela Babcock of Kaua'i's Kalalea Fire dance troupe are creating international interest in their unique form of performance art. They'll be sharing it at the Hawaii Homegrown Festival Oct. 9 and 10. It's hot!

Don’t play with fire, your mother told you, but she didn’t say anything about dancing with it – as a homegrown Kaua’i troupe will do here Oct. 9-10

Fire – it’s elemental, engaging, entrancing. When Eleni Cameron dances with it, it’s Kalalea Fire, raising it to performance art and enthralling audiences with her troupe of fire dancers engaged in flaming sequences safely calculated to be near-misses.

She’s stoked about Kalalea Fire’s latest show, Fly Hawaii, and is looking forward to performing it in October for a Kaua’i audience.

“I am completely in love with Fly Hawaii, she says. “It is an original Kalalea Fire production, and we did it all, from designing costumes to choreographing, selecting music and putting it all together – and then there’s presenting it and creating those presentations.

“The music is this 1950s authentic South Seas jazz – it’s a genre. In the ’40s and ’50s, the whole world became enamored of Hawaii, and everywhere people were creating jungle jazz – for example,

Arthur Lyman, who was born on Kaua’i, and Martin Denny.”

Cameron says she’s been researching all sorts of things from that era – designing costumes and learning how to make pin-curls and pompadours. She’s created elaborate invitations to send out to event planners to let them know about the new show, and has been playing music from the era endlessly.

Eleni Cameron and Angela Babcock perform with former Grateful Dead percussionists this past January in Connecticut

“I’ve been immersed in the music – that’s all you’ll hear on my iPod, and my kid says, ‘Mom, can’t we listen to something else?'”

Kalalea Fire performs for two hugely different audiences, says Cameron: the music industry and corporate events.

“The feeling of 22,000 people at a Grateful Dead concert roaring and loving what you’re doing so that you feel the love coming from the crowd in such a big way, it’s a huge high. You just want to keep doing it,” says Cameron.

That concert involved the entire Kalalea Fire troupe of five dancers, but one of Cameron’s equally favorite concert performances was at the “Gathering of the Vibes” music festival, where the Rhythm Devils, a spin off band from the Grateful Dead, booked Kalalea Fire. Cameron and troupe member Angela Babcock did that one as a duet.

“I work really tightly with her and I trust her completely,” says Cameron. “We work in split-second timing, around each other’s arms, moving across the floor – the amount of trust and timing is amazing.

“It’s also amazing as a dancer to have these world-class musicians jamming. The loudness of the music up there really makes you move!”

Lighting the fire

Cameron discovered fire dancing a dozen years ago while living in California.

“A friend of mine was one of the first women to bring it to the West Coast from Thailand,” says Cameron. “I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had seen at the time. I remember sitting on my front porch and watching her dance in these spirals of fire. I needed to learn immediately.”

Eleni Cameron with son Jai Odyssea

She found she had the knack for it and soon was dancing with fire poi-balls, fire hula hoops, fire staffs, fire fans, fire lotus balls, fire umbrellas and more.

“I never imagined I would do it as a living way back then,” she admits. “It didn’t occur to me.”

When she first visited her sister-in-law here on the island, Cameron thought it was heaven on earth for mothers with children. She moved to Kaua’i a decade ago to make her life.

“When I first got here, I performed fire dancing at one of those music events at the Taro Patch,” says Cameron. “People were just like, ‘oh, my God!’ – and I wasn’t even that good.”

She received requests to perform at parties and concerts. A dream inspired a particular fire-dance piece that gave rise to her first troupe.

“People loved it,” says Cameron. “It was very female-empowered.”

Actor Pierce Brosnan invited the troupe to entertain at his 50th birthday party.

“We painted our bodies gold and wore these Thai crowns and made ourselves into goddesses,” says Cameron. “We called it the Temple Dancers.”

The Brosnans flew the troupe to Malibu for Pierce’s party there. Upon arrival, they were chauffeured via limousine to their destination.

People magazine wrote it up and said we were the hit of the show,” says Cameron, who at one point took a break from fire dancing but returned to it to form Kalalea Fire. She developed promotional packets in the form of elaborate invitations that include a DVD of the troupe performing.

Cameron and Babcock perform with flaming poi balls in Fly Hawaii

Kalalea Fire takes its name from Kalalea Mountain, which Cameron sees from her home. “It means the sun that dances,” she says.

Seeing the sun on the mountain made her think it would be a beautiful name for a daughter, but the only “child” birthing at the time was this second troupe, so she called the dance group Kalalea Fire.

Of Kalalea Mountain, Cameron says, “It looks like a sleeping goddess with her hands folded and a big, pregnant belly.”

Nearby, Cameron lives with husband Ryan Cameron and her 15-year-old son Jai Odyssea. “I feel like I live on Kalalea, she says. “Kalalea is Anahola. That entire place is completely sacred to me.”

Growing up Jersey-Greek style

Born of Greek parents and raised in New Jersey, with most of her relatives still in Greece – “about 200 cousins” – Cameron spent many summers there as a child. Her family moved back to Greece as she headed on to Rutgers University, from which she graduated with honors, writing a thesis on Middle Eastern women’s issues.

It was at Rutgers that Cameron began to study movement and dance, never dreaming she could actually make a living as an artist. After graduation, she went to Greece and traveled in Europe, meeting artists and learning some jewelry crafting and carving wooden figurines.

Back in the U.S., planning to attend graduate school, Cameron veered from her path and began traveling and making jewelry and wooden sculptures. On her journeys, she met her husband.

They run Sol Art Studios, featuring their own works of art such as wooden sculpture, paddles, woodblock prints and more. The couple is committed to reusing, recycling and reclaiming coconut shell, driftwood, recycled lumber and sustainably harvested woods.

When she’s not playing with fire, Eleni Cameron is an artist, creating pieces such as this mermaid sculpture

Samples of their art can be found on the couple’s website, solartstudios.com, or by visiting their exhibits on regularly scheduled days and times, information about which also is on their website.

While drawn to both expressions of art – producing art and producing Kalalea Fire – Cameron says, “I love producing the shows. It’s a huge creative expression and really what I live for in a lot of ways.

“To me, it’s artwork – all of it is artwork: the dance, the production of the dance, the music, the costumes – all of it. It’s way more than just fire dancing to me. It’s art.”

Kalalea Fire gigs around the nation and is on call with current passports to take fire to the world. But the easiest place to see Kalalea Fire perform will be at the 10th annual Hawaii Homegrown Festival staged by Dove Presents, coming Oct. 9-10 to a location soon to be announced.

More than 30 acts will perform, coming from around the state. Donations in advance may raise the ante enough for the show to be free to all who come.

To learn where it will be held or to donate, go to dovepresents.com/shows.htm.

To learn more about Kalalea Fire, visit kalaleafire.com.

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