Phoenix Drako had a routine planned out, but the children in UNC’s Pit Tuesday night couldn’t wait.
“Eat it! Eat it!” they chanted as Drako began spinning fire on the brick plaza outside the Student Union and Student Stores.
The fire “eating” would come soon enough. First, the 29-year old performer dazzled with blazing pirouettes and fiery plumes exhaled through the misty night air.
It was an unconventional start to Hanukkah, the Jewish “festival of lights” that celebrates the miracle of a single night’s supply of oil burning for eight nights upon the dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
But then Rabbi Zalman Bluming of Chabad of Durham-Chapel Hill is a bit of a showman himself.
Standing on a chair in front of an ice menorah that Todd Dawson of Ice Occasions had finished carving just minutes earlier, the bearded rabbi led the crowd in a Hanukkah prayer, replacing some of the real words because the actual holiday does not begin until sundown on Sunday.
“Hanukkah is a time for celebrating the light in our life,” the rabbi said. “It is about brightening this world with acts of goodness and kindness, especially in these tumultuous and often dark times.”
Watching the final touches of the sculpting “makes it so real for children,” his wife Yehudis added. “It makes religion fun. ... These are outstanding moments they aren’t likely to forget.”
Dawson, a Southern Baptist who created the menorah from two blocks of ice weighing 200 and 300 pounds each, is a regular at the Chabad holiday celebration.
Drako, of the Mesmerizing Arts company in Raleigh, was new.
He started fire dancing after going to Burning Man, an annual gathering in the Nevada desert that’s “all about accepting yourself and accepting people for who they are.”
“Just being in awe and just seeing the beauty of the performers and the beauty of fire in general,” set the then massage therapist – and fire fighter’s son – on a new course.
Each year we try to have an innovative way to make the holidays memorable for the kids – and the adults.
Rabbi Zalman Bluming, Chabad of Durham-Chapel Hill
He now performs two or three times a month, almost enough to make a living at it. He practices 15 to 20 hours a week and when not spinning works on concert stage crews and as lead bar-back at The Ritz in Raleigh.
Tricks like breathing fire, in which he holds a swig of ultra pure lamp in his mouth and then pushes out a fine mist until it ignites a plume of fire, can be “really dangerous.”
“If people ask me what I’m doing to breathe the fire, I tell them it’s unicorn blood,” Drako said. “We really don’t want people doing fire breathing unless they come to somebody who knows how to do it.”
First- and second-degree burns that turn red and blister, he said, are almost a rite of passage.
“Yes, it hurts, but it’s kind of a good reminder not to get cocky,” he said. “As good as you get, the fire will always humble you.”