Playing With Fire Dancing With Danger

Alexander Galeai is the reigning world fireknife dance champ, an honor his cousin David won three times. So the competition for the 2005 title will be extra hot this weekend

For David Galeai (left) and cousin Alexander,
the fireknife dance is about continuing
Samoan tradition

When Alexander Galeai defends his title this weekend at the 13th World Fireknife Dance Competition in La‘ie, his primary rival will be his cousin and three-time world champion, David Galeai.

The competition is fierce as there’ll be more than 40 contestants vying for the title at the Polynesian Cultural Center. But the two Galeais like to keep it in the family.

David, 26, captured his third crown in 2003 with a stunning three-knife performance of his own. Last year, Alexander, 28, stunned the crowd with his own tripleknife maneuver that drew gasps and cheers.

“It’s good,” Alexander says of the familial rivalry. “I don’t mind at all because we’re family so we try to represent our family the best we can. We’ve been twirling together for a long time anyway … We’re always sharing ideas.”

Alexander says it doesn’t matter to him who wins and that it’s all good. If anything, competing in the sport together has strengthened the family bond.

David feels the same way: “Everyone gets that same feeling when they’re competing with each other. It doesn’t matter who. Everyone’s going for one thing, the title.”

The cousins derive fulfillment from the sport by preserving the Samoan culture. And Alexander says his culture influences their dancing style “100 percent. I try to keep it close to the culture as I can. I don’t want to deviate from it because then it won’t be called the Samoan fireknife dance.”

Adds David: “Yes, (Samoan culture) has a big influence on my life … just knowing that’s where (knife dancing) originated from. It makes me proud to be Samoan. I want to do the best I can. I love my culture. One day, I want it to be bigger than what it is today. It will be.”

The competition was founded by Alexander’s father and David’s uncle, Pulefano Galeai, PCC cultural islands director, who gives a history of fireknife dancing:

“The ailao, as they call twirling in Samoa, started back in the days of war between tribes. It was mainly to protect land, families and titles. As the Samoan warrior of each tribe went to war, as they returned they would do the ailao. But each time they returned they needed to bring back the head of the enemy. As they carried the head back with them, the highest warrior or the highest chief would run in front of the procession twirling the knife, depicting the motions of how they won the war and how they killed their enemy. From that ancient victory ceremony run the knife dances of nowadays.”

Both cousins do their own choreography.

Says David: “A lot of people think the dancing part is when you’re just spinning the knife, the moves and the motions you do. It is to a certain extent. In fireknife dancing the dancing part comes from your whole body, not just the twirling of the knives or the throwing but how you look when you’re twirling … how you stand, how you present the motion, the routine as a whole. That’s where the dancing comes in, portraying a Samoan warrior type of look.”

Adds Alexander: “Practicing with my cousin, we critique each other. ‘This looks better, try this.’We feed off each other. When my father watches us, (he tells us) ‘Don’t do it like this.’”

In modern fireknife dancing, fire is added to the knife, or nifo oti (tooth of death). It’s not uncommon for dancers to get burned or cut by the knives.

Alexander says he keeps himself from getting hurt through “a lot of practice. Being aware of what you’re doing on stage, knowing your routine inside and out. Other than that, can’t help it. It happens.” He shows burn marks on his arms.

Strangely enough he doesn’t like the danger that goes along with fireknife dancing.

“I started fireknife dancing at the Polynesian Cultural Center when I was 14,” Alexander says. “The guy who usually throws the knife to me, they’re usually used to throwing it to a right-handed person but I’m left-handed. So he was throwing it to my right hand and I was trying to catch it with my left. Twice the knife hit me in the head and I ended up in the hospital.

David and Alexander Galeai: fireknife dancing runs
in their blood

“I don’t like the danger, but what I do like is avoiding the danger. So I get a kick out of trying to get through my routines with no burns, but that doesn’t always work.”

Despite the danger, David likes both the fireknife twirling and dancing.

“I love dancing and I love the thrill of dancing with the fire. The reaction you get from the crowd. I like all of that,” says David, who started fireknife dancing when he was 7 or 8. Alexander started at 5. Both were taught by Pulefano.

David was born in Sacramento and raised in La‘ie. Alexander was born in Hartford, Conn., and grew up in La‘ie.

When asked if we can expect some surprise moves this weekend, Alexander playfully replies, “No.” Then laughs while saying “Wink, wink.”

“I’ve been trying to change up my routine a little to make it better from last year, so you expect some new things hopefully.”

As for David, who hopes to use what got him the titles in the past to elevate his performance this year, says he wants “to make it harder so that when the judges and people see it, they go ‘Wow, something hard!’Throwing (the knife) high will always make it look spectacular. “Come and see.” If it surprises you, then that’s a surprise move.”

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