Warming up. Photo – Supplied
Fire dancing is an odd sort of job, requiring acrobatic skills, concentration, showmanship and more than a little flare to turn an audience on. Aung Na stands confidently with ropes at the ready, focusing on what he’s about to do. The sickly-sweet smell of kerosene drifts over an eager thronging crowd. There’s silence, then the ropes are dipped in the fuel and are lit. Suddenly, they’re flying everywhere.
Aung Na has a stylish dance he can perform while swinging the ropes, which never touch his skin. The secret is in keeping quick, fluid motions to maintain the illusion of danger. With a flick of the wrist, the fire ‘whooshes’ and flares up, exciting the crowds. Readers may be familiar with the regular fire show that is performed near Ngwe Saung beach for locals and tourists alike, where bare chested young beach artists throw fire around professionally for the amusement of the crowd. There’s something for everyone.
The audience comes up to Aung Na after his show and asks him whether it hurts him to be so close to the flame. “No,” he replies, always the showman; “I am one with the fire”.
Aung Na is originally from Mote Palin, Kyaik Hto township, where he began fire dancing 12 years ago. As a youth he spent time in Thailand where his father was a migrant worker. That’s how Aung Nan ended up as a child labourer in masonry. According to the fire dancer, he was 15 when he saw his first performance with fire, and a passion was immediately born. It required him to practice in secret, however, as Aung Nan feared his parents would immediately ban him from the seemingly dangerous activity.
“I didn’t talk to my parents about it, I was sure they would stop me, believing I might die,” he said.
Once he became proficient, Aung Nan began performing in Thailand. He had a steady income of 800 Baht a day entertaining tourists and revelers at bars. He would keep this up for 10 years before returning to Myanmar when his parents fell ill. Returning home to support his family, Aung Na had to give up his passion for more regular work. Slowly, he introduced his parents to his hobby. It would take six months to get both parents on board with the idea but finally, they gave their blessing for him to perform.
Aung Na started picking up gigs with religious festivals, weddings, ceremonies and events. Later, businesses and promoters would contact him to come perform with fire – a skill still fairly unique in Myanmar. At each event, Aung Na can professionally perform eight different dances that he perfected in Thailand. The audience’s favourite is also the most difficult to pull off – the rain of fire. According to the performer, things don’t always go exactly to plan. There’s the errant self-burn, sometimes a stick or a rope may snuff out and require re-lighting. Occasionally, a chair might get singed.
Aung Na’s on fire. Photo – Supplied
“Everyone’s scared of fire, and so am I, but I believe I can stay in control,” he said.
All the practice and showmanship would culminate for Aung Na this year when he competed on Myanmar’s Got Talent, a nationally broadcast variety show and performance competition.
“I didn’t think I would get the golden buzzer (denoting judicial approval of an act) because my act had some flaws, but then I did! I was happy beyond measure,” Aung Na said of his performance. Despite the fact Aung Na was ultimately eliminated from the show, his time in the spotlight gained him important recognition and now, he says, he’s getting even more calls to perform. A far cry from the beach-stud life of collecting tips from tourists, Aung Na now earns around K300,000 for an hour and a half show at organised events. He’s working around eight assignments a month at the moment, and got to take part in a full motion picture.
“1014” is a Myanmar production set in the early era of the Bagan kingdom in which Aung Na plays (perhaps anachronistically) a fire performer. The performer said he was thrilled to work with Myanmar superstar Moe Moe Myint Aung, who appears as a judge on Myanmar’s Got Talent and was Aung Na’s ticket into the film industry.
“I never dreamed I would one day work with famous actors, but it happened!” he said excitedly of the shooting experience.
With a career now really cooking, Aung Na is planning to make steps in the right direction through collaboration with other artists. Though he is 29, Aung Na says finding a girlfriend is not high on his list of priorities.
“Finding a girlfriend is a minor concern right now, getting a house of my own and a fire-dancing class going is my major focus”.