Forums > Beginner Staff Moves > History of the Fire Arts Revisite- Samoan Fireknife (and a little poi)

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75 posts
Location: Malaeimi, Am. Samoa

Talofa everyone !
There was a thread started by Historian which stated a couple of things were a little "off".
1) There was a comment made that the original poi were actually yams and that they were swung against rocks to make them more edible ubbrollsmile
The fact is that the original poi were made like every other "ball" in the South Pacific - they were made out of a swamp weed and attached to a rope. Yams were, and are today, cooked in umus our other types of ovens and have no need of tenderizing.

Now - on to the History of the Samoan Fireknife Dance:
The Samoan "Ailao" was a victory dance in which the victorious warriors would parade the heads of their defeated enemies before the chiefs on the hooks of their "Nifo Oti's". The original Nifo Oti was a war club - not a knife - but it was toothed on one side and could indeed inflict a nasty cut. When the white men brought blubber knives, the Samoan warriors immediately saw the advantage - it not only was sharp enough to sever a head, but also had a ready-made hook to carry it away with. These days, blubber knives - or long knives, are no longer used, so the "pelu" - or bush knife is cut and a hook attached. Competitions do not allow warriors to use knives without hooks.
The original knife dance was done with one knife, and was widely practised. An American Samoan boy - Uluao Misilagi Letuli, learned the dance when he was 15, and from that time he practised daily. Letuli also walked the 21 mile round trip to the Marine base on Tutuila to watch Fred Astaire movies - from which he learned to dance "like Fred Astaire" - that is where the name "Freddie" Letuli you see him billed as on old movies comes from.
Letuli made his way to Honolulu as a member of the crew on a yacht . Letuli worked his way from Honolulu to San Francisco with his knife dance (and slap dance).
It was in 1946 when he was practising for the Shriners Convention and saw a Hindu Fireater (Abe Singh) and a young girl - both practising their routines. He grabbed a towel, tore it into strips, borrowed some kerosene from Abe Singh, and became the "Father of the Fireknife".
Last - but not least - the comment that there is no record of any non - Polynesian performing at a luau as a fireknife dancer is not quite true. Scott Zuziak of Chicago is non-Polynesian and is one of the most accomplished fireknife dancers in the world.Letuli also had a fair haired- fair skinned boy in his original "Samoan Warriors" - although he was part-Samoan.
In our "Nifo Oti" club here in Samoa we have had more white boys than Samoan, while in Western Samoa the Ailao Club has a steady stream of white boys that both perform and compete.
You can get the book "Flaming Sword of Samoa" at Amazon - it's got tons of pictures and info on the fireknife.
You can also see more here: and


Bender_the_OffenderGOLD Member
still can't believe it's not butter
6,978 posts
Location: Melbourne, Australia

WOW! thanks for sharing as always, teejay, you've taught me much more about the origins of twirling than any other! respect!!

Laugh Often, Smile Much, Post lolcats Always

KaelGotRiceGOLD Member
Basu gasu bakuhatsu - because sometimes buses explode
1,584 posts
Location: Angels Landing, USA

does look more like a deadly staff than poi orientated though. Even has singles and doubles competition. Wonder if you can contact with that stuff. wink


To do: More Firedrums 08 video?

Wildfire/US East coast fire footage

LA/EDC glow/fire footage

Fresno fire

duballstarSILVER Member
slack rating - 9.5
2,216 posts
Location: Suburbiton, Yoo-Kay, United Kingdom

tres interesant... thank you teejay! smile i saw fireknife dancing at cirque de soleil last week. they spun really fast, did doubles and flame tricks but dropped too much....

It is our fantasies that make us real. Without our fantasies we're just a blank monkey' - Terry Pratchett

GlåssDIAMOND Member
The Ministry of Manipulation
2,523 posts
Location: Bristol, United Kingdom

Dude. Nice one thank you.
Do you or that book have some more documentation + photos + and evidence of Letuli and others.
I don't doubt what you have written,
I know that this is something within Samoan history and culture and much as poi is with Maori. smile
But I like old photo's smile


-sandy-BRONZE Member
old hand
716 posts
Location: Bristol, United Kingdom

Teejay thank you so much for sharing this im really glad i know that stuff now i've always wondered about that.
are there any internet videos available for those competitions?

"Don't do it naked!"

75 posts
Location: Malaeimi, Am. Samoa

I wouldn't recommend contact - these are not staffs - the knives are REAL machetes and can do serious damage. eek

75 posts
Location: Malaeimi, Am. Samoa

There are lots of photos in the book - it's like a coffee-table kind of book with pictures and newspaper clippings and such.
Letuli was my kids' adopted grandfather - it was from him that they learned the fireknife dance.
You should be able to get the book on Amazon.


614 posts

thanks very much for the thread,
its really interesting to learn more about the fireknife.i too have seen alegria the cirque du soleil show and was impressed but again for me there was to many drops for a world class show.
i would love to fly to samoa and watch the competitons one day.
in the competitons, are new tricks and styles encouraged or is it more about presenting old tricks in the best way possible?

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