My Kim, 20, presses a burning torch to her belly during a performance in Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. She has made her living through fire dancing for five years now. Photo: Doc Lap
My Kim steps on stage and shrugs off her furry coat as deafening music erupts outside an outdoor café in Ho Chi Minh City.
Wearing only a beaded bra and skin-tight shorts, Kim starts to caress her skin with burning torches, before dipping the flames into her mouth.
As the applause fills the night air, a wide smile cracks across her face and remains for the duration of her performance.
Though accidents are frequent and her future remains uncertain, the 20-year-old has kept her torches burning for five years now.
She says her passion began with a childhood fascination with fire.
As she plucked out a few strands of hair singed during the show, Kim explained that she was born into a family of performers in the south central province of Phu Yen.
While her father and grandfather pursued a gentler art, cai luong, (traditional southern opera), she fell in love with fire.
During the summer of her 14th year, Kim was playing with matches when a member of a local circus troupe asked if she liked fire dance.
She nodded and was trained by the artist for the next five months.
“I was pretty scared when I started. My first burn was on my palm when I passed fire from one torch to another. I had to take a two week break before returning to practice.
“I got burned all the time but, the thing is, I still loved it. A few of the people studying with me quit.”
“Everyone thinks we don’t feel burns anymore, but actually who doesn’t? It’s just a matter of how much you can stand and how much guts you've got.”
When her family moved to Binh Duong Province, just outside Ho Chi Minh City, Kim reduced her studies to weekend classes and made fire dancing a full-time job.
"Everyone thinks we don’t feel burns, but actually who doesn’t? It’s just a matter of how much you can stand and how much guts you've got.”
Her older brother, who assists her, said some audience members suspect that they use special flame retardant lotion or fake fire. A lot of men get burned "checking' the flames.
The siblings take a motorbike into the city every time they are called for a show.
Her brother helps set up her kit. Kim spits kerosene and uses gasoline for all her other tricks, including putting fire in her mouth, on body, and keeping her three flaming hula hoops burning.
“Insurers won’t sell to us,” Kim said before bursting into laughter.
Yen Nhi, her 24-year-old colleague, said their job safety depends on external factors like the weather.
Everyone gets burned, no matter how much experience they've got, she said.
Kim still has a big scar on her leg -- a reminder of the time she let a torch get too close.
During another performance, a year ago, flames shot into her throat and she couldn't eat for a week.
In other mishaps, she accidentally set the stage curtains on fire.
The girls said their job has been informal from the start.
Nhi said her father, a magician, picked up a few fire dancing tricks from circus performers while on tour.
After learning the basics from her father, she joined the circus to master them.
Nhi used to perform fire dances on restaurant boats in Bach Dang wharf, but the act was banned for safety reasons.
So her boat shows have been reduced to balancing acts, though Kim still does fire dance shows at café and bars around the city.
Fire dancing can bring in good money from US$20 to several hundred dollars a show, which can be set up pretty regularly during the dry season.
Besides guts, Kim says, the job requires a cheerful face, constant revisions to your routine and a fit body as they must minimize clothing to avoid the flames.
Kim expects she'll have to resign around 30.
Kim can spot aging fire dancers by their singed teeth, respiratory illnesses (due to regular smoke inhalation) and darker, more wrinkled skin caused by regular contact with gasoline.
“And yet I still love it. I love doing things others cannot,” Kim said.
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