It takes a lot to stop the fire-obsessed kids of Montreal.
Spring may finally be in full swing, but just last Wednesday snow fell in sheets in one of Montreal's largest municipal parks. Though famously verdant and animated in the summer, an unfriendly layer of ice now coated the ground, and the areas exempt were muddy and slick.
From the center of this hostile landscape a dim, mysterious glow shone out from beneath the onslaught of snowflakes. Shadowy figures confidently manipulated whizzing lumps of kevlar beneath skeletal tree branches.
As I approached, a dreadlocked figure stoically took a swig of paraffin before belching out three feet of flame. Someone else, a bottle of fuel in one hand and a bag of powdered sugar in the other, followed suit.
There's no catch-all description for the group of around 15 people who gathered to play with fire on the wintery spring night. A girl who didn't look more than 16, septum piercing glinting in the flame, showed a stocky figure a new move with her "poi," two balls of flammable kevlar suspended on chains. While some in snakebite piercings and neon tights stuck out as rave-scene transplants, others give off a more traditional hippie vibe.
One of the latter was Fred Brabant, an endearing figure with shoulder-length ringlets and a hemp dashiki cut off at the shoulders. He'd been introduced to "fire-spinning" about a year ago in an alleyway and hadn't stopped since.
"My friend handed me a pair of flaming poi and told me to go for it. I smacked myself in the face," he told me with a grin. "It made me laugh, and gave me the taste for more."
The story was similar to what Samantha, a free-spirited Californian exchange student, once told me. She'd been practicing a new move in an abandoned Mile End factory when her pubic hair caught fire.
"It was singeing onto me, and I started freaking out and dancing around like a maniac, feeling violated. It was really embarrassing," she admitted with surprising nonchalance.
But even burning pubes couldn't keep her from dancing with flame. For her, and for most of the people I spoke with, playing with fire isn't a casual pastime—it's an addiction, a form of self expression with a guaranteed adrenaline rush.
"To have the fire spinning on every side of you, to feel the sound and the heat, it's really hypnotizing. You go into a trance," Fred told me.
One of the main organizers on the scene, "Marky Marc" Andre, echoed the description.
"It's magic. You flow, following the music. It makes you relax and enjoy the moment," he said.
I first met Marky Marc at an underground venue/living space. Given the ethereal nature of the fire-spinning community, it seemed fitting we met in an apartment complex turned commune in the Upper Plateau (a neighborhood that, thanks to the proximity of a certain prestigious university, is a melting pot of condo-inhabiting yuppies, jaded hipsters, and perpetually-intoxicated undergrads).
In winter, the fire-spinners retreat to less exposed areas. Lacking the enclosed spaces guaranteed by more traditional hobbies like tennis or pilates, the people keen on practicing regardless of the conditions seek shelter off the beaten path and away from police interference.
This often entails trekking to the outskirts of Montreal's industrial neighborhoods, places taking baby steps towards second-wave gentrification but that, in the meantime, have remained resolutely sketch. Many of the crews' old haunts have been demolished, and others are so unsafe they hesitated to take me to them.
One spot has luckily remained reliable, and Marky Marc agreed to show me around. We met up on a particularly grey and drizzly morning, making our way through a maze of concrete overpasses and side streets before arriving at the shell of commercial production.
Dubbed frigo for its previous life as an industrial freezer, every inch of the structure's exterior is covered in tags and colorful murals. A tree-lined path over an obstinate coating of ice brought us to boarded-up double doors. Although previously people had unscrewed the obstruction with a screwdriver and a little persistence, this time the owner had done too thorough a job. We squeezed through a rusted metal side door instead.
The spot is at once derelict and homey. Light shone dimly through dirty skylights, illuminating towering walls covered in graffiti. The high ceilings and intact roof make it an ideal winter practice spot. It's clear that people have made it their own—a dismembered car seat and full-size picnic table have been placed around the charred remains of a tiny Christmas tree.
Some dirty sheets lie on the floor next to a broken glass window, the remaining wall of what was once probably an office. Before there was a mattress and some couches, Marky Marc tells me. Just as I picture a grungy but comfortable party squat, he casually warns me not to step in the corner—there might be used needles lying around.
While the exodus to outdoor practicing grounds has begun, the sense of community fostered by meet-ups in out of the way places like this remains intact. At Tam-Tams, the weekly Sunday picnic when hordes of Montrealers from all parts of society flock to the Mount Royal mountainside, a group of fire spinners congregated.
Kiana Wolfe-Godoy had been on the edge of the fire scene for a while. Though she's hula-hooped seriously for quite a while, told me she was keen on losing her "burnginity" and using a hoop with flaming prongs attached for the first time.
She'd become involved just by asking a stranger at Tams to try their hula-hoop, and ended up doing it all day. She'd kept in contact with what she described as a community.
"People are really open. People are really caring," she told me. "Gas is expensive and it goes quickly, but even if you've never tried before they're still down to share."
True to her word someone offered to let me try out their staff. I held the meter-long stick while someone lit the kerosene-soaked ends with their own flaming instrument, and amateurishly twirled it a few times. The flame spun a foot away from my face.
Though I dropped it with embarrassing frequency, it felt good, entrancing. The smell of gas was in the air, and the love of fire seemed less a pyromaniac's domain than a given.
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