Playing with fire
South African wild child Monique Robinson, 32, has been playing with fire for more than 12 years.
“I grew up in Johannesburg, the youngest of four children and was the only girl. I was a tomboy and was always trying to keep up with my older brothers. Encouraged by them, I was never afraid to try anything new and adventurous, especially if it involved an element of danger.
“I went to university in Cape Town and was soon swept up in the city’s laid-back, bohemian vibe. Every Monday night I joined a small group of students who would light a bonfire on the beach, strum guitars and play drums. There was also a group of amateur firedancers who would perform impromptu shows. I’ll never forget watching a friend firedancing one night. I was entranced at how beautiful the fire looked around her body.
I loved how everybody – including me – stopped to watch.
We were mesmerised.
“I borrowed a poi – a ball of Kevlar fabric soaked in citronella oil dangling on a chain – and tried it. It took a lot of concentration and coordination to manoeuvre the ball of fire so close to my body and not get burned but it was such an adrenaline rush. Once I’d mastered the poi, I started to experiment with other equipment used by firedancers, including a staff with burning wicks on both ends, swords, fans and burning jump ropes. I eventually got good enough to join Fire Tribe, a group of professional firedancers. We performed at various gigs around Cape Town.
“I finished my degree in human resources and left South Africa, travelling for the next five years working in South Korea, Japan, England and Greece. In 2007 I moved to Dubai to work in the IT industry. With a girlfriend I co-founded a freelance firedancing performance group called Wild Fire. During the winter months we perform all over the GCC once or twice a week, sometimes to audiences of thousands. We also perform
in the summer, usually indoors draped with LED lights.
“Of course it can be dangerous working with fire – it’s very unpredictable. When performing outdoors, we need to be aware of wind direction and strength. Safety always comes first; we’re qualified in first aid and always carry wet towels and burn kits. I’ve often singed my eyebrows, and my hair certainly takes a beating, but in 12 years I’ve only ever had one serious incident, which happened during a Halloween performance last year.
“It’s mostly dark when we prep for a performance and I wasn’t aware that I’d accidentally dipped the handles of a fire rope in flammable liquid. During the show my hands actually caught fire. I had to continue performing until someone could cover for me. The pain in my hands was excruciating. When I finally made it to hospital, they said I had second-degree burns on some parts of my fingers. On my left hand the flesh had burned right down to the bone. I was still in bandages for my next performance, which was three days later.
“Accidents happen and it isn’t a deterrent – just a reminder to respect fire and to be more vigilant. Most people don’t realise the physical and mental demands of being a firedancer. The equipment is heavy and my concentration and reflexes are tested constantly. I need to keep fit – not just for performing but for the costumes too. You can’t hide anything in hot pants or a catsuit. I’m always at the gym and I swim and play squash.
“My attraction to the crazy and daring has never left me.
The rational side of me knows the dangers, but my addiction to the thrill is stronger. I have no fear and love all extreme sports like skydiving, scuba diving and bungee jumping. But the biggest buzz of all for me is still fire. It’s a kind of a primal fascination. I’m totally in love with its hypnotic mix of beauty and danger.”
Watch Monique in action at www.wildfiredancers.com.
From burlesque dancer to self-declared circus freak, 26-year-old Lexi Lee from the uk says she’s just an ordinary girl who delights in all things weird and wonderful.
“Although I’m perhaps considered alternative, I’m actually from a regular British family – my mum’s a receptionist and my dad’s a mechanical engineer. Both my sisters are still at university. I left school and from around 20 years of age I started working as a burlesque dancer performing a striptease routine at various cabaret venues around the UK. I see the female body as an object of beauty and burlesque is a celebration of that beauty. It was my creative outlet and I got to travel the world performing in London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Milan.
“My mum didn’t mind but my father hated it. I never considered the work seedy, but after performing for nearly four years I found the burlesque scene in the UK was becoming increasingly competitive and saturated. Much to my dad’s delight, I decided to quit and put my energy into rebranding my performing self.
“After a tough audition I was accepted into the Greentop Circus School in Sheffield. It’s not easy to get in and most people are turned away. It was an intensive course to become a trapeze, stilt and aerial performer. Circus school is disciplined and demanding. At the end of each day I was exhausted and every muscle in my body ached. But I loved the different skills I learned and I especially loved the exposure to other performers. Circus life tends to attract slightly weird and wacky people, and I learned just as much from them as I did from the training.
“My favourite circus acts are the side-show freaks – the bearded women, midgets and contortionists. I love the strange feelings they evoke, the combination of shock and fascination. At 23, with experience in dance and side-show acts, I decided that I wanted my performances to evoke intrigue. With guidance from other performers I learned a whole new repertoire and rebranded myself as a one-woman side-show freak. I wanted to push myself to be able to perform the unthinkable. I wanted to practise things people had never seen before, things that were not even considered possible.
“I picked up the most weird and bizarre tricks to incorporate into my performances. As part of my current act I lie on a bed of razor-sharp nails, eat burning cigarettes and walk barefoot on broken glass. My most shocking – and favourite – trick is the ‘blockhead’ where I hammer a ten-centimetre nail up my nose followed by a pair of scissors. That took a while to perfect, but it was less painful once I understood exactly where the nasal passage lies to safely insert the sharp objects.
“Cirque du Soir opened in London in 2009. It’s a unique clubbing experience that combines the energy of international DJs with macabre circus acts. I became one of the freelance entertainers, and in 2011 after a world tour with the club, I was hired full-time. A year later, Cirque du Soir launched in Dubai. I moved here to join the club in January 2012 and have been performing four nights a week ever since.
“Performing is such a buzz. I’m often asked if my acts cause pain, but to be honest, when the spotlight is on me I’m so pumped I can’t feel a thing. I don’t know exactly how people’s brain chemistry changes when they are performing, but it certainly causes a heightened state. I feel superhuman at times, as though I can accomplish anything.
“I’m obsessed with tattoos. Although it was never planned, tattoos now cover a large part of my body. It happened over time and it wasn’t really intentional. It’s just that my friends create designs for me that I love, and I simply have to have them on my body.
“Being different is exhilarating. If I cared what others thought I wouldn’t do any of the things I do. As a performer I want a reaction. I want my audience to be captivated – to feel shocked, intrigued, repulsed. The biggest insult of all would be if someone walked away from my performance bored.”
Lexi Lee performs at Cirque du Soir Dubai, between 11pm and 3am Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. For more information visit www.cirquedusoirdubai.com.
Iwona Bokinczuk, 27, is from Poland. By day she works in marketing. By night, she’s a pole dancer. But it’s not as shocking as it sounds.
“I was born with a liver condition that has led to a lifetime of complications. As a child I was constantly on medication and missed a lot of school. I loved sport – especially dance and gymnastics – but as I was so often confined to my bed, and sometimes even hospitalised, I was never allowed to participate. I am from a family of six children and all I could do was watch my active siblings and friends with envy and frustration.
“At 19, I left Poland. In many ways it was an attempt to escape the pills, hospitals, operations and the constraints of managing my condition. First I moved to Germany then to Birmingham in the UK. I enjoyed a freedom I’d never experienced before, packing my life with many varied jobs as well as taking on charity work. In my spare time I wrote poetry, painted and started to study psychology.
“A year later, at 21 years old, precancerous cells were discovered in a routine cervical exam. I was put on medication, but because of my liver condition my body reacted severely. I wound up in a coma in intensive care. When I returned to consciousness and eventually recovered, I was more determined than ever to overcome my condition and to live life to the fullest. It was a tough time, but never knowing when the next bout of illness will strike has meant I have learned to cherish every living moment.
“In 2010 I needed surgery again, this time for a slipped disc. I stumbled across pole fitness as part of my recovery from that surgery. It seemed a fun way to restore core and upper-body strength. I found a pole fitness instructor who remains my mentor to this day. She has five children and she taught me that pole fitness can be mastered by anyone. After a few sessions I was able to complete moves on the pole I never imagined my body was capable of. I felt muscles I didn’t even know existed. It was painful, but at the same time I felt free and alive. With each class I was amazed at how my strength was growing. At last I was getting close to the wellness I’d been striving for all my life.
“Later in 2010 I met Richard. Soon after we met he was transferred to Dubai and, not wanting to be separated, I followed a year later. A pole was the first thing I installed in our living room. I use it every day to practise and to work on new routines. With each spin and every move I master I feel stronger, energised and more self-confident.
“Almost three years later I’m part of a thriving pole community in Dubai. Over this time I’ve gained all the necessary requirements to teach pole fitness and even to perform. Since I’ve been living here I’ve only been to hospital once – and that was for food poisoning, which was unrelated to my liver condition. That in itself is a small victory.
“I like to keep my life busy. During the day I work in marketing and customer relations for a medical company, and I’m also completing my psychology degree by correspondence from the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. But my evenings are for pole fitness.
“I perform at select functions, but on silks suspended from the ceiling rather than on a pole. I’ve seen girls performing at some clubs and I’m very aware of the connotations of pole dancing. That’s not what I’m about. Occasionally Richard’s friends make the odd lewd comment, but he always puts them right. He has always supported me and shares the pride I feel.
“Pole fitness, or pole dancing, is my passion. It’s a combination of an art form and a sport. It’s also an escape from my disease. If I can share this with others – either by performing or by teaching – then so much the better.”
For more details on pole fitness classes in Dubai, join the Facebook page PolerciseUAE.