On a recent night in downtown Minneapolis, Spin nightclub threw one of its biggest parties of the year. There were burlesque ladies, belly dancers, stilt walkers -- a veritable sideshow to give clubbers a night to remember.

But all eyes were on a lone woman on a platform in the middle of the dance floor. With the flick of a cigarette lighter, she was suddenly spinning twin balls of flame.

The heat was intense and the sound was louder than you'd think, as flames slashed through the air -- swoosh, swoosh -- audible over the pounding music. Then the woman and two more dancers started eating fire, closing their lips around burning rods of flame. Which raised the question: How does that work, exactly?

"Basically, it's physics," said Cori Stahlecker, who leads the local troupe of fire dancers performing that night. "The lack of oxygen in your mouth puts the fire out. It's tricky, though. You can't breathe in or else the flame will go into your throat and you'll burn those little hairs. It hurts. I've done it once."

A growing number of fire artists -- more than 100 now -- have created a "fire scene" in the Twin Cities. You'll see them in clubs such as Spin, Myth and the Lounge, and often at jam-band festivals around the Midwest.

"In the last year, it's really exploded," Stahlecker said.

Spinners, as they call themselves, pretty much tell the same back story: At some point they saw a performance and said, "I have to do this." More memorable yet is the first time they did it themselves -- the first time they "lit up" or "burned."

"The first time I burned was Oct. 31, 1998, in my friend George's back yard," Stahlecker said. "I remember it clear as day."

That Halloween night she twirled poi, the most common prop used by fire spinners. It's a ball-and-chain design originated by the Maori people of New Zealand ("poi" meaning ball). Practitioners swing it around in rhythmic circles. Modern-day fire spinners say they also owe a lot to their Polynesian counterparts, who use long staffs or blades.

Stahlecker, 32, and a guy by the name of Mr. Fun, aka Steve Poreda, 37, are often credited with sparking the local fire scene. Mr. Fun is a toymaker by day -- his Mystik Toyz brand offers various skill toys (juggling sticks, specialized yo-yos).

The duo began experimenting with fire performance in the late '90s, eventually hooking up with the freaky jam band Wookiefoot. Its flamboyant culture of neo-hippies and "freaks" -- the type of people who would rather give you a hug than a handshake -- proved to be a perfect incubator for the fire scene.

In 2002, Stahlecker and Mr. Fun founded the Twin Cities' first crew of fire dancers, the Illumination Fire Troupe. Today, it is a well-oiled machine, with a choreographer, regular practices, auditions and a busy show schedule.

Other troupes have sprung up in its wake, such as Secret Circus, whose players perform at the Lounge every weekend. Stahlecker also teaches fire-dance classes, while Mr. Fun offers poi training and workshops on designing fire props. (Ever seen a fire hula hoop?)

Mr. Fun, who has a sort of zen quality about him, hosts biweekly Spin Jams. Forty to 60 people meet in a darkened Minneapolis dance studio, where (after burning sage and hitting a gong) they play and practice in blacklight with glowing poi. While no fire is allowed indoors, spinners often drift outside to light up.

'Fire horny'

This close relationship with something so mesmerizing, yet so dangerous, can turn a bit obsessive. Some spinners are jokingly referred to as "fire horny."

"I tell people, you don't have to get all crazy with it," Stahlecker said. "They just want to burn all the time. That's how I was when I first started."

ChaBuku Bakke, 24, got into fire last year, but first practiced with non-fire props for a couple months. "After the first time I lit up," he said, "I pretty much did a burn every night for two months straight."

Bakke still practices nonstop, even during work at the natural-products store Intelligent Nutrients: "If I take a half-hour break for lunch, I'll spend 10 minutes eating, so I can spend the other 20 minutes juggling or spinning."

It's paid off, giving him a reputation in the scene as a fire technician. He talks about using "geometries" in his performance to create fire shapes that can be caught on camera. The young spinner is now offering one-on-one classes. "I even have business cards," Bakke said.

When Mr. Fun talks about the art, his words take on an existential air: "Fire dancing is returning to the source. It's discussing who I am in an honest way with an element that doesn't lie."

This deep relationship with fire manifests itself most stunningly at Burning Man, a massive gathering each summer in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. While it's an attraction for any alternative artist, it's become a sort of pilgrimage for spinners. Bakke went there this year with an estimated 47,000 other people who celebrate the festival's final night by igniting a giant wooden man. "It was the most mind-blowing experience ever," he said. "It took me weeks to comprehend everything I saw."

Playing it safe

The 2003 nightclub fires in Rhode Island and at the Fine Line in Minneapolis "changed everything" for the Twin Cities fire scene, said Stahlecker. "We didn't get a gig indoors for more than a year."

Although those blazes were caused by pyrotechnic effects, which fire artists don't use, Mr. Fun said the resulting backlash "gave us a chance to mature a bit and see how important the safety is." His troupe began a relationship with Minneapolis fire inspector Mike Rumppe, who created a strict process for handling fire props indoors.

"We've set up parameters, and they meet and exceed those standards," Rumppe said.

Most fire dancers also have what some call "clown insurance," which covers damage to a club should an accident occur. "It's actually called entertainer's insurance," Stahlecker said. "But it started as insurance for clowns and the company was called Clowns of the U.S."

Fire artists also stick to a strict safety policy to protect their own bodies. Stahlecker knows the dangers all too well. She suffered second-degree burns on her legs in 2004 when her skirt caught fire. She had "basketball-sized blisters" on her thighs. Now dancers wear leather -- no synthetic fibers, no hairspray and no wigs -- and some spray themselves with flame retardant.

These precautions were evident during the gig at Spin. Earlier in the evening, as the fire dancers prepared for three hours of spinning, they stood in the club's back alley, soaking their props in camping fuel -- they always keep the gasoline outside. It was chilly (27 degrees) and a light snow had begun to fall.

Almost everything was in order: They had a city permit and insurance; the fuel was stored properly, and a water bucket and fire extinguisher were at hand. But as they prepared to light up their poi, Aimee Willmoth -- who goes by Butterfly -- turned to her fellow fire dancers, realizing they had forgotten the most important thing of all:

"Anybody have a lighter?"

thorgen@startribune.com • 612-673-7909