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Meet Trailblazer Tina Lee Arons, Brianna Winter and Jo England

Today we’d like to introduce you to Tina Lee Arons, Brianna Winter and Jo England.

Tina, Brianna, and Jo, please share your story with us.
Collectively, we’re the founders of FemPyre, a collective of women fire performers based out of Dallas-Fort Worth. We host Fort Worth Fire Beats at Shipping & Receiving on the first Thursday of every month. It includes a drum circle, DJ Scott Stanley, dancing and fire performers, live artists, vendors, and more. We’re regulars at Flowmoon, hosted by Ignite Art Collective at Deep Ellum Art Co., too, as well as the original Dallas Drum Djam at the Green Elephant. We’re building a sisterhood of empowered, safe fire performers and spinners in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Tina: I’ve been teaching high school English for about seven years now in high-needs urban schools. A couple years ago, my friend Greg finally talked me into going to the Texas Renaissance Faire and I saw an incredible fire performance by Solar Rain at the end of a fantastic day. The female performers with fire fans caught my eye, and I thought to myself, “I have to do that!” When I got home, I did some research online, ordered a pair of Forged Creations fire fans, and begun the journey into being a professional performer. I started taking weekly belly dancing classes at Crescent Moon Belly Dance Studio in Fort Worth and practicing lighting my fans on fire in the driveway with the help of my husband as a safety person. The first couple times were terrifying, especially the whooshing sound that flames make as they spin close to your head.

For whatever reason, fire performance art spoke to me. It kept me pushing to see just how daring and how far I could go. I think the element of fire and movement of dance brought rebirth and healing that I’d desperately been seeking in other places, too. I tried therapy and yoga and gardening and journaling and other hobbies or things that brought me joy in the past. Nothing was working. I was struggling with depression in the aftermath of a challenging childhood, a failed first marriage, a tumultuous start to a second marriage, the death of a mother figure, and increasing challenges at work. I turned 30 this year and it seemed like an auspicious time to turn things around, to not accept that I am what happens to me but to choose what I want to become. (It helps that I have the most incredible and supportive life partner who I never imagined existed before I met him.)

I’m about to quit my teaching job to take a year-long sabbatical. I auditioned for and made it on a fire performance team destined for Burning Man this fall. I started my own business: Wildfire Performing Arts. And, as I tell my teenage students, there’s not always a right time to make your dreams into reality. There is just right now and what you are doing right now to build a bridge to where you want to go.

Brianna: Growing up, I did sports, gymnastics, and a little dance, but nothing resonated with me like belly dance does. I wanted to take classes when I was a teenager, but I lived in a very small, rural city in East Texas where bellydance classes were not available. I started learning in college and fell in love with it, then, I took a break for a few years to focus on work. I’ve been bellydancing for about 6 years now.

I’ve been blessed to have studied with some amazing, renowned teachers who inspired me. Also, I picked up poi (Polynesian fire flow art form) first while I was in college, put it down for a few years, and picked it back up again recently.

I first integrated fire with performances about 3 years ago. I was inspired by a festival where I was performing in Austin. One of my group mates, Kaylah Zuli, who happens to be one of the best fire dancers in Austin, persistently encouraged me to learn more props and get involved in the community.

Jo: I didn’t become interested in flow arts until I was looking for a light at the end of the tunnel of postpartum depression. My son was two years old and I was feeling lost to motherhood. And then I picked up a hula hoop and I haven’t stopped since.

I’ve been working with fire for about three years now after Izzy May — my best friend and eternal inspiration — facilitated my so-called “virgin burn.” I’m now proficient at single and double fire hoops, fire fans, palm torches, and dragon staff, as well as fire eating and fire breathing. It’s the perfect juxtaposition to my day job — a freelance writer and editor. And not only did fire arts motivate me to finally shed the baby weight, but it’s empowered me to learn other dance forms and to perform on stage — something I would have never imagined just four years ago!

We founded FemPyre last year, as we felt a vacuum of safe spaces for women in the fire dancing scene. Our goal is to perform on stage, host events, and empower women to participate in what is a very transformational art.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Tina: I think one of the best things people can do for themselves, in general, is to find a time to silence all the voices that tell us what we should and shouldn’t be doing with our lives. For me that often means spending time unplugged from my phone in the garden or camping with my dog.

As for beginner performers, the easiest way to get your foot in the door is to make yourself useful to more experienced performers. Think about what you have to offer right now and ways you could help in order to observe and learn. Time is precious for most professional performers, and we aren’t always interested in giving away knowledge for free when we had to work hard to get it ourselves. So, how can you help us in order for us to help you? It may be as simple as volunteering at festivals and events where you’ll be stationed with people who don’t mind answering questions while completing volunteer responsibilities. Show up to our events and make notes about how performers conduct themselves (costuming, stage presence, makeup, soliciting audience participation). Don’t copy us or steal our routines (because that would be stealing our intellectual property and likely to give you a bad reputation in the community), but do let our creative expression inform how you put your own performer self together.

Brianna: This journey has mostly been smooth and abundant. Bellydance has been a gift that keeps giving. It inspires me to care for my body (dance has many health benefits). It elevates my mood and has given me an outlet during troubled, frustrating times. I’ve met great people who have encouraged and taught me. Really, there are so many rewards to bellydance: travel, self-care, collaborations, art, and creativity, to name a few.

I encourage anyone of any age, background, gender, body type, etc, to pick up dance or flow arts. There are many beginner classes in different cities in different genres, including but not limited to improvisational tribal, burlesque, bellydance, or ecstatic dance. Find a dance form that speaks to you and starts taking classes. Of course, I’m biased and I think all women should belly dance since it is a feminine, empowering experience.

Jo: Of course, there have been hiccups along the way, but for the most part, the only limitations I’ve experienced when it comes to fire performance and flow arts is hitting mental or physical plateaus. It takes a lot of practice, patience, and mindfulness to perform with fire (and time, which can be hard to come by with a young child) but the payoff is immense. I’ve never felt so powerful as when I’m spinning fire, especially on stage.

But part of the motivation behind founding this group was to create a community, which has been one of the most helpful assets. There is a huge community of female fire performers online — gobs of completely talented and inspirational women — but there’s a lot of distance between most of us. FemPyre bridges that gap, and in the near future, we hope to bring more women to the fire arts through mentorship, classes, and performances. That one-on-one guidance, combined with dedicated practice, is a great way to grow your skill set as a female fire performer.

What’s the most important piece of advice you could give to a young woman just starting her career?

Tina: Practice is more important than buying expensive gear and attending festivals all over the country. If you can invest a sizeable chunk of money into performance arts, that’s awesome. Do it.

If you, like me, function on a budget, then spend your money wisely. Buy a quality prop that you’ll enjoy using but save on costuming by making your own stuff. Attend local or regional flow festivals or workshops and try to volunteer the cost of your ticket away.

Practice a little bit every day or larger chunks every week. Learn a couple moves and do them well. Take your prop with you to work and practice on your lunch break. No excuses for not practicing! If you’re working on a new move that you need to drill, imagine it in detail when you’re driving in the car or stuck in a boring meeting — science tells us that imaging what our bodies and muscles are doing decreases atrophy and helps build the myelin sheath around our nerves which is what we refer to as muscle memory. Really what you’re doing is making it more efficient for communication to happen between your brain and your muscles. The faster they speak, the less clumsy your moves. It might seem silly but it works. One of the things I do before a choreographed show is playing the song in my car on repeat and imagine myself going through the routine. I’ve noticed a huge difference when I do this and when I don’t.

And if you are skilled, then more doors will open up for you. You can borrow costumes for gigs and get help doing your hair and makeup, but you can’t fake skill for long.

Brianna: Release fear. Everyone in your life will always have varying, diverging opinions on what is best for you. I recommend acknowledging the opinion, but tune those voices down and instead find those moments in life that bring you happiness and inspiration. Pursue those moments.

Also, come to our monthly Fire Beats show in Fort Worth! It’s an opportunity to watch or perform, hang out on a patio, shop with our vendors, learn new skills, and meet awesome people. There is something for everyone.

Jo: It’s so difficult, especially as someone who is self-employed and a mom to a young child, but creating space in your schedule for practice is absolutely paramount. You cannot progress as an artist without the dedication and a willingness to make mistakes. However, you have to reserve judgment and just keep plugging away at a move or skill until eventually, practice progresses into mastery.

Many moons ago in one of my undergraduate photojournalism courses, I was having a tough time with my inner critic. My professor, an award-winning photographer, asked me if I knew the difference between an amateur and a professional. “The professional,” he said, “has simply made more mistakes from which he has learned.” I carry that philosophy with me in everything I do, from writing to fire performance. And there’s no better environment, I feel, for learning than that of a group of encouraging, like-minded women.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about FemPyre Fire Art – what should we know?
Tina: As a solo fire performer, I’m Wildfire Tina. I’m also a part of the FemPyre leadership team and the performance troupe. I’m a bellydancer in The Texas Jewels. And I’m a fire performer in the Pyrotex Fire Collective, which will hopefully be performing at Burning Man in the fall.

What sets me apart from other fire performers is that I combine technical flow arts moves with the beauty and grace of dance. Fire fans are what I am most known for, although I also enjoy fire eating, dragon staff, palm torches, fire balancing sword, and various other props I dabble with.

I am also a licensed flame effects operator in the State of Texas, which means I can obtain permits for fire performances in front of an audience. I know the legal and safety requirements needed to minimize risk for performers as well as audience members and venues. I’m also insured as a performer.

I am the proudest of the level of professionalism I bring to the table. Being reliable and trustworthy goes a long way when working with clients and other performers.

Brianna: I’ve been in troupes, collaborated with bands and musicians, made costumes, performed at festivals, parties, events. I’ve really been focused on upping the scale of the projects I’ve been working on. I’ve been bringing more people into the fold and collaborating on some bigger scale things, like a music video for a new album released by Wind Song.

Currently, I’m committed to Fempyre. That is our brand by the three of us. We seek to support our community by providing venues, workshops, teaching, and support (and the occasional post-event pancakes).

I’m most proud of growing something that I believe to be an enriching, uplifting experience for myself and other people.

Jo: Fire hooping is my main act, but I’m also in love with fire manipulation, such as fire eating and breathing. I was featured on the cover of the Dallas Observer last November in a feature about the fire performers at the Dallas Drum Djam hosted by the Green Elephant. That was exciting and precipitated my deep dive into fire performance. Before, I’d been a regular participant at fire jams and festivals, but performing wasn’t completely on my radar. Now, with Tina and Brianna as my collaborators, it feels much more natural and fun to perform.

Personally, I’ve yet to find my “brand” in this business. Sure, there are few female fire breathers in Dallas/Fort Worth, but I’d hardly call myself a firebrand (pun intended). Instead, I’m most proud of creating community and encouraging fellow fire women to chase after the flame of inspiration.

We’re interested to hear your thoughts on female leadership – in particular, what do you feel are the biggest barriers or obstacles?
Tina: There are myriad compounding and intersecting factors that made it difficult for women to become leaders in general. I think the trickiest one to navigate is implicit bias. In industries that have been or continue to be male dominated, the people in charge of selecting who is allowed in (and who is left out) are men. If we as humans tend to choose our tribe based on people who look or seem the most like us, then the gateway remains closed to everyone the brain subconsciously labels as “other.”

What this translates to in the field of fire performance is that it takes effort and a desire for diversity in order to allow people to fill the role they fit best instead of the role that was predetermined. Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy playing the Hawaiian fire dancer part for clients who want a brown-skinned beauty to create a certain aesthetic at a themed party. What I don’t want is for people to not take me seriously when I step out of that role and into the business side of things.

Sometimes I feel like I have to work harder to prove myself than my male counterparts when it comes to leadership and business savvy. I cringe every time someone says “it’s the good ol’ boy system” and doesn’t provide a solution for dissolving that barrier. I don’t mind working hard, but I do wish that everyone who I work with would examine if they’re making me jump through more hoops than if I were male or white or middle aged or not covered in tattoos or whatever way that I am different from the status quo.

Brianna: I think this is the best time and place to have been born a woman. Never before have there been so many opportunities and freedoms. That being said, we do still live in a world with predominantly male power structures. I’ve read some stories about underlying cultural obstacles, such as men perceiving women as speaking more in conversations when we speak less, men tend to listen to more, and women listened to less as an inherent gender bias. It’s enlightening to hear the accounts of transgender people before and after transition regarding how they are treated.

I have so much appreciation for the women and supportive men who have come before this generation, trailblazers for more opportunities for women today. The next steps for women involve changing the power and leadership structures, in money, business, and politics, to become more feminine.

I believe that women are actually naturally more predisposed to leadership than culture suggests. Our brains light up more during moments of connection, nurturing, and community, as shown by PET scan imaging studies. I think these elements are somewhat deficient in our culture currently, and this contributes to a lot of sadness, stratification, and disconnect among people. I believe that the solution to many modern ailments is to shift power structures to include more feminine influence, and I don’t mean women who assume masculine qualities. I mean truly loving, nurturing, and guiding femininity.

Overall though, I believe that barriers are imaginary. There are infinite opportunities to succeed, no matter your background. Keep your glass ceilings. I’m busy building my own skyscrapers.

Jo: There’s a lot to be said of women who, instead of wilting under male-dominated leadership in their field, forge a new path. In the fire arts and performance disciplines, we often see women in powerful roles, though it wasn’t always the case. For a long time, women came across as novelties instead of talented, multi-faceted performers. Today, FemPyre is proud to have a deep roster of talented female performers and leaders who are taking the reins and inspiring more women to both become leaders and to follow their passions.

Outside of the fire arts, I frequently see a tone-deaf response from men to the concerns of women and their exclusion from leadership positions. In many cases, whether in conversation or in print, male executives and leaders purport their success as solely attained by merit, though that completely disregards the implicit privilege society has endowed upon them sheerly due to their gender. The solution? Elevating women who wield power well — especially women of color — and recognizing their accomplishments.

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Image Credit:
Stephanie Goddard/Jean Gaudet Photography, Marcus Lopez Photography

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