A young man spins unlit fire chains by himself, in the middle of Collier Park at Soto & Greene. His phone rings, a tinny sound from his pocket. He pauses to answer it, tucks it between his shoulder and his ear, and continues to spin while he talks. The spinning is almost an afterthought, his body dancing slowly, almost like tai chi, but with whizzing metal balls on chains involved.
Slowly a troupe forms, ten people or so, mostly men and mostly young-looking, in their 20’s and 30’s. They lounge on the grass at first, then as more people begin to show up with more gear – long poles of PVC piping, tennis balls shoved into knee-high pantyhose, hula-hoops, and other practice materials – the people on the ground begin to rise, and to spin.
This group meets every Monday at 6p.m., organized and led by Chris Harrison. By day, Harrison is a computer programmer at UCSD. By night, his occupation and persona changes – he is known as Taz, and he spins fire. He runs the Monday flow class for all levels, and fire is not involved. It’s a practice session, so relaxed that I even join in, giving myself a couple good whacks in the head and shins before finally nailing down a solid turn. It’s harder than it looks.
But I am here not because fire spinning looks cool, although it does, I am here because fire activities have become controversial lately. OB is a community rich in burners, known as such because a number of them perform at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, as the San Diego Fire Conclave.
Dog beach, after dark, has served as a practice spot for these serious and involved burners for the past 2-3 years. These burners and hoopers (dancers with flaming hula hoops, essentially) have practiced without incident until recently.
On June 4, 2009, four women with hula-hoops all received tickets and fines from an Officer R. Schultz. The women in question are professionals, and were practicing for an upcoming event. Their hula-hoops were on fire, and they had two safety people ready at either end of the practice. They were each given a ticket for “uncontrolled fire, fire-throwing, or walking on fire”.
“Yeah,” said one of the various guys sending chains whipping effortlessly over his head, “I heard about that. I was surprised; nobody’s ever gotten busted at the beach. I got busted a couple years ago, but that was in a park.”
Charles Shaw and Scott Wakeham show up soon after and seek me out. Wakeham runs the San Diego Fire Conclave, and Shaw is somewhat spearheading the movement to fight the tickets. Neither received tickets on June 4th, but both were present a week earlier, on a Friday, when the same Officer Schultz came down to dog beach and told them to stop spinning fire.
“People have been spinning on that beach for at least three years, longer if you count individuals and smaller groups,” says Wakeham, “We’ve even had police officers come and be very explicit – you can spin fire on this side of the beach, but not this side. Go over by the firepit, not past the berm. So we practice by the firepit.”
But on this particular night, Officer Schultz decided to overrule those earlier officers and close down the practice session completely. Wakeham and Shaw claim that Schultz told them that he didn’t really know if there were any codes against it, but he would check into it. Two hours later, Schultz returned and said that he did know of a rule that fires on the beach had to be out by midnight, so they had to leave.
“That was nothing we’d ever heard about before,” Shaw exclaims, “this guy was greener than the grass we’re standing on.”
The grass is most definitely green, and Shaw and Wakeham argue that Schultz and his sergeant are both new to town, with no real awareness of the history and safety of the fire spinners and hoop dancers at the beach.
A week later, The Hoop Unit, a separate group from the SD Fire Conclave, were practicing on the beach, led by local hooper and burner Valentina Martin, known as Unity. Officer Schultz returned to this different group and claimed that his sergeant wanted him to shut it down. The group assured him that they were professionals, and they had two safety people with fire blankets, prepared to put out all 4 hoops in less than a minute. Schultz was adamant, and according to Shaw declared his own thoughts, saying, “I think that this is a public hazard.”
“The cop was angry, he didn’t even ask us anything,” says Allison Walkey, one of the women who received a ticket, “He said he’d warned us already, but those were completely different people. Maybe he should keep a record of who he’s warned.”
The four women who were ticketed were running the choreography for an upcoming event – something that became almost impossible to do when their safe practice space was taken away. As Wakeham points out, there are very few places in Southern California where it is safe to spin or hoop with fire, and the beach is one.
Now the four women ticketed are facing fines of $625 each – a $2,500 expense for the group. The money that they make performing isn’t even enough to be taxable. Most of the women are San Diego residents, and have been practicing here for years. Walkey argues that the claim of the ticket – that they had uncontrolled fire, were throwing or walking on fire – has nothing to do with them. Their fires were controlled, and they were neither throwing fire nor walking on fire.
“Also, people love it,” she says, and Shaw echoes this sentiment, saying, “If the city would work with us and not against us, this could be mutually beneficial. Tourists love us. Have you seen people watching fire spin? They’re mesmerized.”
The San Diego burner community is actively supporting Allison Walkey, Aesha Shapiro, Heidi Estevez, and Sarah Edgar, the ticketed hoopers in question. The group plans to take the tickets to court, and will be raising money to do so. Proceeds from the Funk the System party on July 3 will go towards the tickets. There will also be another fundraiser on July 24th. Details are to be announced – you can most likely find them at www.unityhoops.com, myspace.com/UnityValentina, or email Unity directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. “I have a lot of money to raise!” says Unity.
youtube video of hooping is available at www.youtube.com/user/UnityTheGypsyQueen.