The Burning Hearts Fire and Light Theater

By Frederick Jerant

Humorist Jean Shepherd (whose writings formed the basis of “A Christmas Story”) once mused that women apparently attend a special school before becoming mothers, where they’re all taught to say the same things. Stuff like:

“Sit up straight.”
“Eat your vegetables.”
“One day your face will freeze like that.”
“Don’t play with fire!”

That’s (mostly) good advice, but a troupe of performance artists in the Lehigh Valley must have had their fingers in their ears during that last one.

The Burning Hearts Fire and Light Theater specializes in “performing feats of object manipulation, with the theme of fire,” says founder/artistic director Matt Vassallo. In other words, they wow audiences with the choreographed spinning and tossing of blazing hoops, staffs, fans and
other paraphernalia.

It’s the modern version of fire dancing, an ancient tradition with roots in Samoa’s “ailao” exhibition, in which warriors symbolized their battle prowess by twirling, tossing and dancing with a flaming war club.

Today, fire dancing’s often seen at raves, concerts, clubs, and other venues, such as the annual “Burning Man” festival at Black Rock City, NV. Even Cirque du Soleil used contemporary fire performers in its 2008 production of “Zaia.”

So what lit Vassallo’s wick? “I had seen a performance, and just decided that it was something I wanted to try,” he says.  In a nod to Mom’s wisdom, Vassallo started out with poi – not the staple Hawaiian food, but a set of simple tethered weights that can be spun in intricate patterns. (Some poi are translucent balls that hold programmed colored LEDs, providing an ever-changing sequence of hues.)

After sufficient research and practice, he lit up.

Neighbors and friends caught the bug from watching backyard performances…and that loosely knit group soon became the Burning Hearts.

Vassallo is quick to point out that the dozen or so group members are pretty much like you’n’me. He’s the manager of a manufacturing company; his wife works in the financial industry; another spinner is an American Sign Language interpreter. Others are landscapers, software developers, and tech support specialists. “The one thing they have in common is fun with fire,” Vassallo says. They also have a penchant for stage names, including Firefly, John M. O. D. (Master of Disaster), KitKat and Johnny Styx.

The Burning Hearts use plenty of off-the-shelf “toys,” such as hoops and devil sticks, but they also develop and build their own fans, dragon staffs, poi and umbrellas.

One special crowd-pleaser is the flaming whip. At first, I thought it was just a series of wicks linked together, but Vassallo explained that it’s an actual whip. “It’s a long, pleated piece of Kevlar®,” Vassallo says, “and we ordered it from a professional whipmaker in Florida.”

Spinning and dancing with fire is one thing…but how about the scarier stuff – like fire-eating? Or fire-breathing? “I love when people ask me about that,” he laughs. “There’s no magic to either one. It’s a combination of proper technique, plenty of practice, and a good bit of courage.”

Vassallo is reluctant to say more about either stunt, stressing that anything involving fire can be extremely dangerous. “Anyone who tries this stuff without first doing plenty of research and taking lots of safety precautions is an idiot,” he says adamantly.

“We’ll never do a show – or even practice in the yard – without advance preparation,” he says. That includes wearing all-cotton clothing, because synthetics can melt and stick to your skin; avoiding any hair product that includes flammable substances; having at least one “spotter’ and fully charged fire extinguishers and fire blankets ready-to-go. Some spinners go as far as using fireproof gauntlets for extra protection.

The Burning Hearts have become summertime fixtures at Joseph S. Daddona Park near Union Terrace Elementary School, performing at least two free shows in each of the past couple of years.

“We’ve always liked Union Terrace,” he says (using the park’s informal name), “and thought it would be a great place to do a free show. The city’s administration agreed, and supported us from the start. We even got to sit in on some special-events meetings at City Hall that year.”

The group also formed a good bond with the city’s fire marshal. “We demonstrated that we understood National Fire Protection Assn. rules for ‘flame effects in front of an audience,’ and had a binder full of MSDA sheets on our fuels, as well as the proper insurance and city permits,” he adds.

Those one-hour shows always highlight a theme, and feature linking narration, plenty of music and tightly choreographed performances. “It’s where we really show off what we can do,” Vassallo says.

And most of the proceeds from the Daddona Park shows go directly to the park, to help maintain and improve it for all patrons.

The Burning Hearts have also performed at Allentown Brew Works, the Zoellner Arts Center, the Allentown Art Museum, and some city-endorsed events, including “Blues, Brews and Barbecues,” the Dia de los Muertos festival, and the city’s New Year’s Eve festivities.

For more information about the Burning Hearts Fire and Light Theater, visit theburninghearts.com, call (484) 809-9712, or e-mail [email protected] Follow them on Facebook, too.

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