Eric Kendall learns how to play with fire.
The ultimate in party tricks can be taken up on a course at a circus school. But learning to perform with fire is no casual undertaking. Paraffin, not petrol, is the key to fire-breathing, or juggling with flaming clubs or balls. Mix up your Ps and you're in big trouble: paraffin burns steadily with a relatively cool flame; petrol explodes.
Whatever the flame game, the heat, flashes of colour and drama are accompanied by that vital extra ingredient: the impression that you may just torch yourself. It's like fireworks at point-blank range, but without quite as much danger, expense or noise. Below are the tricks of the trade.
You make a fire-stick from a length of dowel with cotton chair-webbing wound around the end and tacked in place, making sure the end will fit in your mouth. The webbing acts as a wick. Soaked in paraffin, then shaken off (you don't want it dripping down your throat) it burns long enough for you to try all manner of blister-defying tricks - running the flame over your hands and arms, licking the underside of the blazing wick and even putting it in your mouth. Remember to tilt your head right back and exhale while it's in there. This ensures a column of air surrounds the flames and keeps them from burning you.
Breathing fire, or rather, spitting mouthfuls of paraffin through a flame, highlights the major drawback of paraffin: its chemical effect on your liver, even if you manage to keep it in your mouth and not swallow too much, is the real problem, and it tastes horrible. This makes fire breathing the preserve of professional performers who limit the amount they do and charge lots of money.
You learn by practice "breathing" with water to make a fine spray. When doing it for real, the paraffin needs to come out like a Scotch mist, else it won't fully ignite, and naive photographers will be doused. Also worth practising with water, is taking a mouthful and then inhaling through your nose, to get a sustained, powerful breath. Getting this wrong for real usually results in swallowing the paraffin, which you don't want to do.
If you care about your health and know, deep down, that it's not the size of the flame that matters, try fire-breathing with custard powder. It's more Swan Vestas than Dante's Inferno, but it's still impressive to all but hardened pyromaniacs. With a well-timed puff, flames of a foot or two in length can be produced by a complete novice, and it's about as dangerous as burning the toast.
The real advantage is that when making the elementary mistake of the beginner breather (breathing in when you should be breathing out), it's refreshing to have a lungful of ticklish, vanilla- flavoured powder rather than a dose of poisonous petrochemicals.
The method works on the same basis by which a flour mill will blow itself to smithereens if a spark ignites air laden with clouds of fine flour - plenty of air mixed with small, combustible particles and a source of ignition. Custard powder itself isn't particularly flammable, but blown down a short tube towards a fire-stick, so that it forms a cloud as it reaches the flame, it behaves like gunpowder without the bang. Other powders, such as icing sugar and talcum powder, can also be used, according to taste. Fill the tube with powder before blowing; if you filled your mouth, the powder would get too wet and lumpy to burn.
Probably safer for the performer than for bystanders, it's spectacular to do and to watch. With the right wick and sufficient paraffin, the speed of the twirling staff through the air makes the flames at each end burn brighter and roar, giving a double effect. When performed in the dark, the result is a series of swirling patterns of fire.
Practise without the flames to start with, for obvious reasons. Having double-jointed wrists may helps, as does experience as a cheer-leader.
Perhaps the hardest to comprehend: how do you light the tangerines in the first place? The balls used for this type of juggling are wire cages coated in silicon, with a central paraffin wick. Solid wooden balls soaked in paraffin can also be used. Gloves are a good idea, too. The only reason it's possible, even with gloves, is that the flames rise, leaving the underside of the balls hot but not blazing. The minimal contact time while juggling means you don't go up in smoke, but getting started - the hardest aspect of any juggling - is another matter.
Though the wire balls are specially designed for their purpose, they make the juggling process harder, as they're light and slightly bouncy. Using clubs is an alternative, which offers the comic potential of catching one by the wrong (flaming) end. It goes almost without saying that an ability to juggle well is a prerequisite of fire-juggling.
Where to learn
Circus schools: Circus Space (0171-613 4141) in London; Circomedia (0117 947 7288) in Bristol; specialist shops: Cunning Stunts (01722 410 588), the London Beach Shop (0171-243 2772), Oddballs (0171-250 1333), Butterfingers (0117 986 6680); juggling/ street theatre/ new circus magazine The Catch (01275 332 655).
With thanks to performers Neil and Gordon at Cunning Stunts, and Jonathan Russell (01722 339 280), Salisbury's official city jester and children's entertainer, who is raising funds for the Mayor's Appeal, the Breakaway Trust, providing holidays for disabled people and their carers.