Sopi Jensen started eating fire when he was just 8 years old.
Putting flames to his mouth was one of his first lessons as a young fire dancer training in Samoa.
The Mangere man is internationally renowned in the art and will take to the stage at the Auckland Carnival in Glen Innes this Saturday.
The free event features Auckland's diverse communities through international performances, a global village of food, crafts and clothing stalls and a large street parade.
Mr Jensen, 29, moved to South Auckland six years ago after a successful career performing in Taiwan, Hawaii and Dubai.
He featured on the television show New Zealand's Got Talent but was denied a semifinal spot because his act was considered too risky to perform indoors at the Albany venue.
Fire dancing is more than a job or a hobby, he says.
He first saw the siva afi performed when he attended Vaivase Primary School in Samoa.
"I had a friend at primary school whose dad used to fire dance and my friend used to do it too.
"I asked him if he could teach me and he said no. So after school one day I went home and got a stick and put two balls of newspaper on the ends, soaked it in kerosene and lit it. I almost burned Dad's house down.
"After that Dad asked my friend's dad to teach me how to fire dance."
Traditional fire dance is popular in many Pacific Island cultures and involves dancing and spinning a machete set alight at both ends.
Young Sopi took every opportunity to learn it, he says.
For the first three months he learned with sticks, then a nifo oti (fire knife), perfecting spinning and acrobatic tricks.
"It's not easy. I've got a lot of marks on my face and hands from when I was learning how to throw the knife but I loved it, it never put me off. I just practiced all the time until I got it.
"Over time when you've been doing it for so long your body gets used to touching fire.
"The first time my teacher lit the knife in front of me and said: ‘Stick your tongue out', I was terrified. I burned my upper lip a couple of times but I eventually got good at eating fire."
By the time he was 9 he was training professionally with a master fire dancer who'd made his living in Japan and he later quit school to follow his dream.
He started as an entertainer at Aggie Grey's Hotel in Apia, won competitions and was sponsored by the Samoan government to contest a world title in Hawaii.
He landed a job fire dancing at a theme park in Taiwan in 2000 where he worked for three years.
He's now a signwriter in Glenfield, teaches at the Pacific Arts School in the city and performs at corporate events and celebrations at nights and on the weekends.
"I really love this art as it spans different cultures." he says.
Auckland Carnival runs from 10:30am to 5:30pm at Line Rd, Glen Innes. Go to 2012.auckland internationalcarnival.co.nz for information.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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