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updated: 11/30/2015 11:35 AM

Meet the Maine West football player who moonlights as fire dancer

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  • Video: Dancing with fire

  • Jared Brogni, 16, of Des Plaines does the fire knife dance as part of Barefoot Hawaiian. The fire knife is a traditional Samoan cultural implement that is used in ceremonial dances. Called siva afi in Samoa, the dancer twirls the knife while doing other acrobatic stunts.

      Jared Brogni, 16, of Des Plaines does the fire knife dance as part of Barefoot Hawaiian. The fire knife is a traditional Samoan cultural implement that is used in ceremonial dances. Called siva afi in Samoa, the dancer twirls the knife while doing other acrobatic stunts.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Brogni plays varsity on the Maine West football team as right guard. He also moonlights as a fire knife dancer with Barefoot Hawaiian.

      Brogni plays varsity on the Maine West football team as right guard. He also moonlights as a fire knife dancer with Barefoot Hawaiian.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Brogni entertains a crowd during a Cary festival by tossing the fire knife behind his back and between his legs.

      Brogni entertains a crowd during a Cary festival by tossing the fire knife behind his back and between his legs.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • After a performance, Brogni puts the fire knife in a fire blanket to extinguish all the flames. Safety is his No. 1 priority.

      After a performance, Brogni puts the fire knife in a fire blanket to extinguish all the flames. Safety is his No. 1 priority.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Jared Brogni, 16, of Des Plaines plays varsity on the Maine West football team.

      Jared Brogni, 16, of Des Plaines plays varsity on the Maine West football team.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

You would think that most 16-year-old juniors at Maine West High School would be hanging out with their friends after school. Jared Brogni of Des Plaines is instead playing with fire -- literally.

With his unique job as a fire-knife dancer for Barefoot Hawaiian in Des Plaines, Brogni breaks the stereotype of the average football player.

"My heart is pumping when I get out there (in front of an audience)," Jared says. "I have to take deep breaths to calm down to (stop my hands from) jittering."

Brogni began his career at Barefoot Hawaiian at age 6, following in his mother Jade's footsteps as a hula dancer. Ten years later, Jared graduated to fire knife dancing through the suggestion of Barefoot Hawaiian owner Gwen Kennedy.

Having learned the difficult moves that are involved in hula dancing, Jared incorporates his quiet strength into his fire knife performances. But with flames spinning around his body, around his head and sometimes in between his legs, his performances take on a daredevil-like quality.

"I usually singe the hair on my head or my eyelashes, and when I get it close to arms or legs I will get a scrape there," he admits.

Getting ready for a performance is a tricky process. Using kerosene as his fuel, Jared pours the liquid over both ends of the fire knife, lighting one end, then grabs the kerosene-soaked other end, which saturates his hand, touches the flames and brings his then-flaming hand down to the unlit end.

This is all done with lightning speed so he suffers no burns. He tries to rid the fire knife of any residual kerosene so that none lands on his unprotected skin.

"There is always risk in fire dancing," he says, adding that it's important to follow all safety precautions. "There are no skipping those."

According to Jade Brogni, Jared's mother, Jared follows a number of steps to stay safe.

"He has a fire blanket and fire extinguisher nearby at all performances," she says. "He never performs without a spotter, who watches out for the audience, especially children who might want to get too close. He also pays close attention to how much fuel to use and how big a flame it produces."

This traditional Samoan art is more common in California and Hawaii than in the Midwest, which may be part of why so many people are amazed at what Jared does.

"It's a pretty unique thing to be a part of, and that's pretty cool saying it is something you can do that most people in the world don't do," Jared says.

As he performs, Jared combines precision control with such energy and enthusiasm that it might make the best Hawaiian knife dancer a little jealous.

"It's pretty thrilling having the fire up close to you, spinning it around your body," Jared says. "Before I get out there I have to take deep breaths to calm down so that I can have a good show for everyone."

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