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Fireknife Winner to Continue to International Competition

Kuinise Leiataua performs as part of Si'a Le Afi. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Kuinise Leiataua performs as part of Si’a Le Afi. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

By Vanessa Wolf

If you’ve ever attended a luau, you’ve probably seen a Samoan fireknife dance.

If you were at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort and Spa over the weekend, you saw that art taken to a whole new level.

Si’a Le Afi – “Ignite The Fire” – was a two day event in tandem with the resort’s regular luau production, Te Au Moana.

Friday night saw eight fireknife competitors hoping for a chance to compete in the 21st Annual World Fireknife Competition next month narrowed down to the final three.

Saturday’s event was emceed in part by the hilarious Chief Sielu Avea. Avea was the winner of the first ever World Fireknife Competition in 1993 and is author of the book, “Tatau: The Art of the Samoan Tattoo.”

Avea also served as a judge alongside Pulefano Galea’i, a renowned fireknife dancer and Samoan cultural expert; Malo Seleni, one of the original pioneers of fireknife dancing in Hawaii; and Ifi So`o, Maui’s own three-time World Fireknife Champion.

Fireknife dancing (known as Siva Afi) is uniquely Samoan and takes its roots in the warfare culture of the past.

The knife itself is a one foot to 18″ blade with serrated edges and a sharp hook at the end.

The original knives were machetes wrapped in towels with a portion of the blade exposed in the middle. In modern times, the towels are set on fire, thus the name.

L-R, Chief Sielu Avea, Kuinise Leiataua, Pulefano Galea’i, Martin Tevaga, and winner Mikaele Oloa. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The final three competitors pose with their newly won knives. L-R, Chief Sielu Avea, Kuinise Leiataua, Pulefano Galea’i, Martin Tevaga, and winner Mikaele Oloa. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The history of knife dancing goes back hundreds of years and has its roots in the ancient Samoan exhibition called “ailao.”  These were showy demonstrations of a Samoan warrior’s battle prowess through skilled twirling, tossing, catching and dancing with their war club, a display intended to frighten the enemy and celebrate victory afterward.

In 1946, a Samoan knife dancer named Freddi Letuli was performing in California and noticed a Hindu fire eater. The fire eater loaned him some fuel, Letuli wrapped some towels around his knife, and the fire knife dance was born.

Now, 67 years later, it is a serious art form with an annual international competition to determine and distinguish the best.

The final three contestants last night were all based in Hawaii. Each of them performed two dances, one with a single knife and the second with two.

The first to perform was Maui’s own Martin Tevaga. Based in Wailuku, he has been dancing for 20 years and was taught by his father. The shouts at the end of his performance implied a large local following had turned up to cheer him on.

The second fireknife dancer, Kuinise Leiataua, was from San Diego by way of Honolulu. He had also learned from his father 17 years ago.

Unfortunately, there was an early mishap and the flame failed to light on his knife.

He continued with his dual knife performance, but we were later informed that “each warrior is responsible for preparing his own weapon. If it fails to light, there is an automatic disqualification.”

The third competitor, Mikaele Oloa of Honolulu, was the defending champion. Although he had only been fireknife dancing for 13 years (and yes, he also learned from his father) he won the international competition in 2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010. In other words, there was some serious precedent here.

In the end, history repeated itself with Oloa taking home the $3000 prize and sponsorship to compete in Oahu next month.

Maui’s Tevaga received a $1500 check and other prizes, and Leiataua won $500.

All three dancers were gifted with handmade knives crafted by the head judge.

If you missed the competitive show, you missed a show, but rest assured it will return to the Marriott again next April.

Have an idea for a fun or thought-provoking story or topic? Get in touch: we want to hear from you. -Vanessa (@mauinow.com)

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