Burn, Baby, Burn
Steven Manu Bacalso on what it's like to be a fire knife dancer
October 06, 2005
A couple weeks ago I visited Manu at the Feast at Lele in Lahaina. His performance comes near the end of the show's four-region Polynesian journey of food and dance. While attendees polished off desserts, lights dimmed, drums rolled and the emcee enthusiastically announced the arrival of "Chief Manu!"
After what seemed like a few dramatic moments longer than usual, Manu jogged out from the kitchen entrance, grabbed the candle from my table and lit his torch with it. Then he bounced onto the stage and, without missing a beat, awed the crowd with dazzling feats of twirling knives, juggling flames, fire breathing and acrobats.
When the lights came on and the luau was over, Manu was inundated with accolades.
"You did great, hot stuff!"
"Can I get a picture with you?"
Manu was sweaty but gracious, and tirelessly posed for photos. "Just another day at the office for me," he said.
I like it now but I kinda didn't like it in the beginning. I got hurt so much back then. But failure wasn't an option.
I was born in 1964 on Oahu. I was raised in Ewa Beach as a Christian and went to church. I have three brothers and a younger sister—I was a momma's boy. I graduated in 1982 and was married for nine years. I have a daughter, Hi'ilei Nani. She's 12 now.
I started dancing in 1979. I've been dancing for 26 years. In 1980, I performed with the Halau Nawai Eha O Puna in the Merrie Monarch Festival and hula competition. We placed first.
I was a dancer at the Paradise Cove luau, but I also did street, jazz and Polynesian dance at different shows and groups on Oahu.
I've danced for every show in Waikiki. Every show, literally. Been there, done that. Twice. All the headliner guys—Don Ho, Al Harrington, Danny Keleikini, Tihati—all the shows on the strip. In Vegas, too. I was contracted to do shows at the Tropicana, Sahara and Jermaine's for two weeks. It felt like a month.
I never wanted to do fire knife dancing. But in 1990, the Magic of Polynesia was opening. My hula teachers at Paradise Cove—O'Brien and Thaddeus—told me to get my knives ready. I had a month and a half to get my routine ready.
My teachers told me, "If you're gonna learn, you're gonna learn from a Samoan teacher." So they sent me to Pulefano. He was in his 60s: very quiet, observant, old school, polite—very Mormon. It would take me two hours to get there and I'd have to bring food and gifts.
Training was just like in Karate Kid. It was a very Mr. Miyagi, wipe-on/wipe-off kind of thing.
I got to know all the high elders of the Polynesian Cultural Center in Pulefano's backyard. I learned to dance and speak Samoan. He taught me basic Samoan motions and moves, and different tricks. "Vili" is spinning the knife. "Kakai" is when you break off and roll the knife around on your hand.
All fire knife dancers have different styles. Some stand there while the fire knife revolves around them. Pulefano stressed moving my body with the knife. Because I was a hula dancer, that was easy for me.
My first public fire knife performance, at the grand opening for Magic of Polynesia, was terrible. I made a fool of myself. A Honolulu newspaper columnist gonged me—said my routine was too long, too boring, I dropped too many times. Whatever was the worst thing he could say, he said it. I was devastated.
After that, I started practicing my butt off in the back of the dressing room. The other luau guys would be going out and doing stuff and I would practice, practice, practice. There's no shortcuts in fire knife. Just practice.
I also got a lot of help from my Samoan friend Nephi Pomaikai'i Brown. He was the big, tattooed guy—"Nick"—in that movie 50 First Dates. Yeah, Nephi was the best fire knife dancer until he gained, like, a hundred pounds. He taught me about how to take the knife apart and put it back together, what kind of fuel to use, wind direction and other kine technical stuff.
When I worked at the Magic show, I had an open file at the clinic across the street. I've had burns on my hands, face, chest—every night it's something or other. I used to have long eyelashes and bangs to die for. Now they're history! People used to ask, "Did you get burned?" and I would say, "Yeah, but I don't need a doctor. I need a beautician!"
My biggest injury was when I bonked my head three times with the knives and I had to get stapled in my head and stitches—without anesthesia. The doc said it would be a little uncomfortable. It looked like I had a lobotomy.
That same night, I also lit my chest on fire. That wasn't so bad. Some guys have had real bad burns. One time, one of my friends caught the stage and his whole body on fire. I was nothing compared to that.
All my fire knife dancing friends have supported me. I feel like now I gotta kind of pass it on—give back to the community. A lot of these guys today are the top fire knife dancers. I don't really teach 'em anything, I just give mental support. The sky's the limit when you have support.
I've been to Brunei, Tahiti, Fiji, Japan and Kuala Lumpur to perform. I had an agent—Kathy Muller. I've done movies, commercials, print work. In the late '90s, I opened for Janet Jackson for Princess Amila's birthday and hung out with the royal family.
I've always had the best gigs. I was in the right place at the right time. I've been lucky, very fortunate.
Then new management in the magic show offered me a job managing some other productions. I was working at Fed Ex at the time, supervising. I always had two jobs: the shake-my-booty, fire knife dancing job and the regular day job. But I thought I was getting old—I was in my late 30s. So I retired from fire knife dancing for three years.
I was an air ramp controller but I wanted to be an air traffic controller before I moved here. I loved that job. I had my house, my baby, my job—but for some reason, they asked my age and were like, "Ah, you're too old. We thought you looked younger." They turned me down. It's 'cause air traffic controllers get the burnout factor.
I was gonna be a flight attendant. But then I went to Chicago. I worked for an airline in Hawai'i. They taught me how to handle first class, how to speak: It's not "how much," it's "how many." Everything is "copasetic." But Chicago is gross. It's hell. I was freezing.
I watched the flight attendant in first class—it was such a shitty job. I could just imagine what coach class was like. Basically, you're like a waiter, taking crap from everyone. I reached deep down inside and said, forget this, I don't wanna be a flight attendant. So then I went to L.A., met Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy, went to some clubs, drove around in a limo.
I moved to Maui for family reasons five years ago. I got a job as a bell clerk at Kapalua Hotel, where they handed me money, dressed me up and fed me everyday. Then 9/11 hit and I got the boot 'cause I was the new guy. I applied everywhere.
I started dancing again for 'Ulalena and fire knife at Feast at Lele. I would do their first nightly show there, then jump in my truck to do the show at Lele, then go back to 'Ulalena to do the second show. I lost a lotta weight—I looked good back then!
My day job now is wastewater operator for Maui County in Honokowai. I get benefits, decent pay—it's pretty much my retirement. I'm trying to get into management. I started four years ago.
I've been at Feast at Lele now for five years, and I reap the rewards. I show up for dessert, perform for five minutes and get paid well. But I don't want to do it for very much longer. Maybe five or six years more.
In my spare time, I love to golf, surf, fish, sleep, watch TV and eat. Basically, I'm a simple man with simple needs. MTW
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