Photo of the Week: Fire-Knife Dancing in Samoa

  • Damien Sass (photo), Damien Sass and Nynette Sass (text)
  • 3 January 2010


This photograph of Siva Afi, or fire-knife dancing, was taken in 2008 at the Hotel Kitano Tusitala in Apia, Samoa‘s capital city. Siva Afi is no doubt one of the most exhilarating aspects of Samoan festivities and shouldn’t be missed during a visit to the island.


Siva Afi began as the ailao, a traditional dance that involves the twirling of the nifo oti, or war knife, and was a pre-war ritual in pre-Christian days in Samoa to psych up Samoan warriors.

Then, in the 1940s, Letuli Olo Misilagi, a famous Samoan fire-knife dancer, took the ailao to the next level after observing a baton-twirling girl and a Hindu man practicing fire-eating tricks overseas. He added fire to the nifo oti dance, making it more spectacular and daring.

Today the dance is a demonstration of agility and spectacular feats that are guaranteed show stoppers in any Samoan festival. In fact, it is usually the spectacle that wraps up any festivity in Samoa.

Although fire-knife dancing is widely acknowledged as a Samoan tradition, it is now also popular in other Polynesian cultures, including on the Cook Islands and Hawaii, the latter of which has hosted an annual fire knife dance competition at the Polynesian Cultural Center since 1992. Of course there is also an annual Siva Afi competition in Samoa, which is followed by the world’s best who always turn up to compete.

The fire-knife dancing pictured above was part of a hotel program that, following a sumptuous buffet of Samoan cuisine, included Samoan dancing and singing. I was reminded then how addictive a performance it is to photograph, so much so that one may well spend more time peering through the camera’s viewfinder than actually watching the show.

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fine arts, human interests, islands, local knowledge, Oceania, personal experience, photo of the week, Polynesia, Samoa,

One Response to “Photo of the Week: Fire-Knife Dancing in Samoa”

  1. Polynesian fire knife dancers are among the best in the world, and the video below may very
    well prove that.

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