Story by Jordan and Aaron Kandell
Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams
At first there is only darkness broken by the steady beat of a lali drum. Another lali joins the rhythm, then five more, the noise building like slow-rolling thunder until, in an instant, it stops. Suddenly a blue and ghostly flame lights the stage as Viavia “VJ” Tiumalu holds aloft a nifo oti knife, its hooked tip on fire. With his naked palm, he drags the flame down the length of the steel blade, setting it ablaze. Then the defending world fireknife champion raises it high like a warrior of old, lets out a wild cry and begins to dance.
Let’s be clear: This is not your grandfather’s fireknife dancing. You may think you know all about those twirling rings of fire—perhaps you’ve seen them at a lu‘au, in a Cirque du Soleil show, even in Lilo and Stitch—but until you’ve witnessed the dancing at the World Fireknife Championship, you haven’t seen the best. The event, which takes place over four nights every May at the Polynesian Cultural Center on O‘ahu’s North Shore, has grown to become the Olympics of the fireknife dancing world. In 2012 the championship marked its twentieth anniversary and welcomed more than forty professional dancers who’d come from all over the globe. The ones to beat: Rex and VJ Tiumalu from Orlando, 2011’s defending champions, Rex in the intermediate division, VJ overall. Only this year there was a twist: with Rex now old enough to qualify for the overall division, 2012 marked the first time the brothers would compete against each other … and both were determined to win.
With their powerful bodies and their long hair pulled into matching buns, the Tiumalu brothers look much the same—but the similarities mostly end there. “We’re close in our dancing but not in anything else,” Rex confides as he and VJ recline together pre-competition on a lauhala mat in a thatched fale (house) in the PCC’s Samoan Village. “Outside the stage we are very different people. I’m outgoing and VJ is very serious.” As if to highlight this, Rex breaks away to greet a rival dancer while VJ stays seated. Only two years older than his 18-year-old brother, he radiates an intensity far removed from Rex’s boisterous charm. “We are brothers,” VJ concurs, “but we very much stand alone.”