If you have stayed at Grand Sunset Gili Air, you would probably have been witness to one of the regular fire-dancing performances that entertain visitors to the island.

In a feat of strength, concentration, agility and speed, fire dancers create a show like no other by spinning around poles and balls on strings that are set alight.

The history of poi

The origin of this performance goes back centuries, and the Maori people of New Zealand are believed to have been the pioneers of the ancient art of spinning a ball on a string, also called poi (when literally translated, “poi” means “ball on a string” in the Maori language).

Poi was first practiced as a form of exercise to train for hunting and fighting. The heavy balls developed the flexibility and wrist strength needed to handle weapons and tools, but this initial practice soon evolved into a form of dance and storytelling. In those days, the balls were not set alight – this only started occurring in the mid-20th century, developing from the ailao, or traditional Samoan knife dance.

After seeing a baton twirler and fire-eater perform at the San Francisco Shriner’s Convention in 1946, the Samoan-American knife dancer Uluao (Freddie) Letuli wrapped his knife in towels and doused it in fuel, to give the first-ever fire knife dance performance. The success of Letuli’s fire dance lead to the rest of the Polynesian dancing instruments also being lit on fire during performances.

Poi as performance art

Poi performances first became tourist attractions in the 1950s in Hawaii, and they have since become popular beachfront attractions on tropical evenings elsewhere. The annual Burning Man Festival in Nevada in the United States is credited with making fire dancing more mainstream than it had ever been before.

Today, poi has spread across the world, and visitors to Gili Air are fortunate enough to regularly see the masters in action on the beach at the Scratch Beach Club. To pre-book a table and witness this astonishing performance, please speak to our front desk.