The fire knife is a traditional Samoan cultural implement that is used in ceremonial dances. It was originally composed of a machete wrapped in towels on both ends with a portion of the blade exposed in the middle. Tribal performers of fire knife dancing (or Siva Afi or even "Ailao Afi" as it is called in Samoa) dance while twirling the knife and doing other acrobatic stunts. The towels are set afire during the dances thus explaining the name.
The Siva Afi was originally performed with the Nifo Oti ( Samoan war club ) which is very dangerous as the steel of the Nifo oti heats up and burns . The modern fire knife dance has its roots in the ancient Samoan exhibition called "ailao" – the flashy demonstration of a Samoan warrior's battle prowess through artful twirling, throwing and catching, and dancing with a war club. The 'ailao could be performed with any warclub, and some colonial accounts confirm that women also performed 'ailao at the head of ceremonial processions, especially daughters of high chiefs. During night dances torches were often twirled and swung about by dancers, although a warclub was the usual implement used for 'ailao. Before the introduction of metals, the most common clubs that were wielded and displayed in the 'ailao fashion were elaborately carved heirloom clubs called "anava". These 'anava were frequently carved with serrated edges and jagged "teeth" which characterized the unique Samoan weapon called the "nifo'oti".
When European and American whalers and traders began commercial ventures in Samoa, they introduced the natives to the long-handled blubber knife and the hooked cane knife. The characteristic metal hook of these tools was readily incorporated into the Samoan wooden nifo'oti, which bears the unique hooked element whether carved from wood or forged from steel. One common claim is that the word "nifo'oti" means "tooth of death", but this is not linguistically accurate as Samoan syntax places the modifier after the subject; according to Samoan grammar the term "nifo'oti" would actually mean "dead tooth", hardly as intimidating as the former translation. One more linguistic issue remains to be worked out in regards to 'oti (with the initial glottal stop) and "oti" (without the glottal stop). When pronounced with the glottal stop, the word 'oti does not mean "death" at all; as a verb, 'oti means "to cut" as in 'otiulu ("hair cut") or as a noun it refers to the domestic goat. Therefore, the most probable derivation of the term "nifo'oti" stems from the resemblance of the weapon's hook to the curved horn ("nifo) of a goat ('oti), or from the serrated teeth ("nifo") that formed the weapon's cutting edge ('oti).
Ancient Samoan Legend speaks of hundreds of warriors whom would practice ailao with the ends of their weapons on fire the Nifo Oti ( Samoan war club )as part of their training. The warriors became very skilled and began to use and add many skillful maneuvers and spinning tricks to their ailao fire training, eventually becoming highly skilled combatants. Samoan warriors were called upon to dance and entertain the Tu'i Tonga Talakaifaiki during a birthday celebration for the King of Tonga. The Tongans had ruled parts of Samoa Upolu and Savai'i but were not able to conquer the Eastern Samoan Islands namely Manu'a (American Samoa) and Manono whose warriors famously held off Tongan and Fijian invasions on numerous occasions. The Manu'a warriors were renown throughout Eastern Polynesia for their strength and ferocity.
For approximately 200 years the Tu'i Tonga Talakaifaiki established a long-term residence at Safotu, Savai'i, Samoa. The location for the Tu'i Tonga Talakaifaiki's birthday Festivities was a beautiful famous stretch of beach in Aleipata a region on the Eastern side of Upolu. The Samoan warriors arrived to prepare their entertainment for Tu'i Tonga Talakaifaiki, the Samoans buried weapons nifo oti, in the sand all around the beach area, as they plied the Tongans with "bush gin". Then they utilized their nifo oti, which has remained the same design for the last millennia, as those favored when the Samoans were actually head hunters, and the nifo-oti beheaded the victim while the hook carried the trophy. Of course this way of life had long since been abandoned but the nifo-oti were still extremely lethal.
As the Festivities and party progressed, and more "bush gin" was consumed, as night set in the Samoan warriors "performed" for the king. They had wrapped both ends of their nifo-oti with dry palm sennit which was then dipped into the fires to create a blaze on one end of the knife. They danced and pointed out the locations of the buried weapons, to other Samoan warriors who waited, in small paopaos (canoes) offshore. The warriors then stormed the beach, recovered the weapons and set them ablaze as they proceeded to drive the Tongans in a bloody battle all the way across the island, from east to the western most point of Upolu, where the Tongans whom were not killed, eventually boarded boats and left Samoa for good.
The young man Tavita Vaoifi revived the Samoan ailao Siva Afi dance, to eventually bring it home to Samoa. He had won a scholarship from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This was while WWII was being fought in part, in his beloved South Pacific. When he was able to come to America he went to school, worked, and danced. After he read this information, in his spare time, he researched anything that he could find about his homeland. This story stuck him deeply, because he had never heard of this from his elders. He was determined to incorporate this treasure into his island dance routine. After many cuts, burns, and narrow escapes he was able to perfect this dance to the point where he performed it nightly at clubs and shows throughout, not only the San Francisco area but the entire country.
Fire was added to the knife in 1946 by a Samoan knife dancer named Freddie Letuli, later to become Paramount Chief Letuli Olo Misilagi. Letuli was performing in San Francisco and noticed a Hindu Fire eater and a little girl with lighted batons. The fire eater loaned him some fuel, he wrapped some towels around his knife, and the fire knife dance was born.
Although today many commercial performers perform the dance with short staffs or unbladed knives, this is not authentic fire knife dance and is unacceptable in the Samoas except for training purposes. The knives used by performers in American Samoa are still made of machetes, although they are often dulled for younger dancers.
Traditional competitions were hotly contested. Their exhibitionists would almost rather die than seek medical care for injuries incurred while performing. Today, modern competitions are held annually at the Polynesian Cultural Center to name the World Fireknife Champion. The competition began in 1992 and is always held during the third week of May. In 2007, the championships were expanded to welcome competitors in a duet category and a women's category. In 2010 the event expanded to four nights including a two-night, three-person final competition.
Champions by year are:
The Samoan Siva Afi has become an integral part of any Polynesian Luau or show. Many other Polynesian Islands have implemented the Siva Afi into their own Island shows especially in the Islands of Tahiti, Hawai'i, Cook Islands Fiji and Tonga. Because of the close familial Tribal ties with the aforementioned Islands and the Samoa Islands, the fire knife dance has almost become homogenized as part of those Islands own culture. In the mid 20th century, the ancient traditions were commercialized and westernized. Over time the performing implement has changed. The wooden handle gradually lengthened and the blade got shorter. Eventually, the exposed portion was part of the handle. Some of the moves performed in shows now are more modern and flashy than traditional battle preparations. As such, they are often performed at accelerated speeds. It is probable that the danger of sharpened blades and the demand for multiple daily shows by top performers has caused the sharpened blade to disappear entirely from commercial performances. Now, when one travels to Hawaii, it is quite common to see commercial Fire Knife Dancing performed with wooden or aluminum poles wrapped in towels. These performances are often part of Luau festivities or Polynesian shows that include Poi Ball performances.