Austin flow scene brings fire art, community to campus

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George Robertson breathes fire at the 21st Street Co-Op on Monday night. Gwam Puerta, 21st Street Co-Op “fire senpai,” and his group of friends perform fire shows at parties and special events hosted by the Co-Op.
Photo Credit: Zoe Fu | Daily Texan Staff

When international relations senior Gwam Puerta notices a dip in the party’s energy, he wets his hair, lathers his beard in Vaseline and sets a torch on fire — ready to bring the crowd to life.

Puerta is one of many students in a community of fire spinners, a form of flow art — or the practice of manipulating various props, such as staffs, hula-hoops and poi balls attached to the artist by a chain or string. Some artists practice with LED equipment, producing light shows with their movements, while others, like Puerta, spin, throw and breathe fire. 

“You’re not playing with fire; you’re dancing with fire,” Puerta said. “So when you’re out there, you’re in the moment. I’m not thinking much about anything. That’s the beauty of it.”

Puerta learned to spin fire three years ago at the 21st Street Co-Op, when a friend taught him some basic moves in a crash course. He said flow art helped him relieve stress, and he would often practice during study breaks. Over time, his moves became muscle memory, and he was able to practice with live flames. He and a group of friends started performing at parties and special events hosted by the Co-Op.

“It sounds scary at first, but once you get over [that fear], you’re safe,” Puerta said.

Today, Puerta is the 21st Street Co-Op fire master — more colloquially known as the fire senpai — and puts on the community’s fire shows, ensuring they run smoothly. He has also taught over 20 students at the Co-Op moves ranging from the butterfly, a move in which two poi are used to create the image of a butterfly’s wings, to more intricate ones, such as the three-beaded-weave, which produces two full circles of flames on each side of the performer’s body.

International relations senior Gwam Puerta practices fire spinning on Monday night. Zoe Fu | Daily Texan Staff

Puerta taught UT alumna Alex Colella when she was living in the Co-Op last semester. Colella said it took her a month to feel comfortable graduating from her practice equipment, a sock stuffed with tennis balls, to a flaming poi.

Neither Colella or Puerta have seen a flow artist seriously injured during a performance. In order to maintain this level of safety, one person, whom they call the firefly, manages the fire-extinguishing equipment in case of emergency. ­­­Colella said the scariest part of spinning is the deafening sound of the poi, whizzing by her ears as she spins. 

“I was definitely nervous [at first],” Colella said. “You worry about whether you’re varying things up enough for people, but people don’t really care. People enjoy it regardless.”

The flow art scene expands beyond the UT campus. Colella is a member of Austin Flow Jam, a local community of over 800 artists who gather each Tuesday on the State Capital grounds. Co-creator Kira Bolin helped start the group with her boyfriend in June 2014 in an attempt to bring together a flow art community. Since then, the group has grown rapidly.

“Recently, Austin has started becoming one of the cities that has a huge flow scene,” Bolin said. “It’s hard to get in any other towns because it’s kind of different. We tend to be a more open-minded community than your regular go-to-bars-and-drink kind of people.”

Kat Massock, a member of the Austin Flow Jam, specializes in LED hula-hoops, which change colors with movement and can create over 300 different patterns. Massock said she is participating in a few flow art performances in the upcoming South by Southwest Music Festival, including an in-costume flash mob.

“I’ve been an artist most of my life, and I was always trying to find out what my medium [was] and how I could express myself,” Massock said. “I really found it in movement.”

Bolin said flow art has helped develop a community of like-minded people within Austin and helped her grow, personally, too.

“It’s changed the way I live and the way I think,” Bolin said. “I think it has to do with that meditative state you get in, where nothing else matters, and all you’re focusing on is what you’re doing in the moment. It really odes help us become better human beings.”