In darkness with dazzling, spinning flames, Paul moves confidently on the sandy beach. Each step is firmly planted while his torso undulates and his arms and wrists rotate the flames of the fire poi. Looking like a six-armed Indian fire god, Paul spins the poi at mesmerizing speeds. “I don’t know how you can take your eyes off him,” said Bick Hall, an American tourist watching Paul’s performance.
Paul spins his fire stick with amazing speed. In the dark his image burns a wall of fire on the retinas of his spectators’ eyes. “The speed that he does the act with is incredible,” said Jaquelyne Hurley, a tourist who watched the performance at Anthony’s Key Resort.
Paul Abel, 41, is a world-class act. A relaxed hippy with a ready smile, he has mesmerizing blue eyes and 3 ft long dreads.
Paul came from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where he earned a fine arts degree at a community college. He studied graphic design but soon decided, “that wasn’t me. I wanted to make everything more complicated.”
Paul paid for college by working for a government agency planting trees all over Canada. In his slow days he would do odd jobs in the surrounding towns. “One day I woke up and asked myself: ‘What am I doing painting houses?'” said Paul. “This is when I decided to lead an artist’s life.”
After graduating Paul moved to Los Angeles, started surfing and got married to his college sweetheart. But the picture perfect life wasn’t for Paul, who soon found himself divorced and back in Canada.
His first contact with fire dancing was in 2001 at a Rainbow Gathering in British Columbia. He took some lessons on how to juggle poi and when an opportunity presented itself a few months later, he headed towards Mexico in a Dodge van. He crossed the border into Mexico at Ciudad Juarez and found himself with almost no money. He began his first fire dance show at the town square in Ciudad Juarez, earning a couple pesos.
Afterwards, one of the local bar owners invited Paul to perform and put some money in his pocket-not an easy feat in the rough Mexican town. “I practiced all day and did a fire show. I earned four-five dollars and ate tacos,” says Paul.
It took Paul two years to cross Mexico. He went from festival to festival, kept improving his fire dancing skills and even joined a Mexican circus … twice. His fire act was featured after dancing dogs and before trapeze acts.
Typically, after a week of performances at a town the circus troupe would pack their two trucks and a motor home to head for another site in the state of Guanajuato. “One thing I learned is to practice, practice, practice,” says Paul about his Mexican circus experience.
Whenever he wasn’t fire dancing, Paul was using the many other talents he picked up along his life’s journey. He painted murals at restaurants and painted signs for businesses. “I can write a whole alphabet on a grain of rice,” the Canadian says about one of his many abilities. Paul is a survivor-he’s been able to learn skills and apply them creatively throughout his life.
“It was really a great life,” says Paul of his time in Mexico. Still, after spending two years living all over Mexico, his luck eventually ran out. At Playa del Carmen Paul was arrested for fire dancing … and roughed up by the police. When he was released from jail the next day, he headed out to do more fire dancing at the beach. “The judge said it was ok,” remembers Paul. But local police caught up with him again and put him in jail overnight to give him one of his rougher experiences yet.
When the local judge saw him again, Paul was faced with a dilemma: deportation or leaving Mexico. Within a couple hours he was on the bus heading for Belize.
Paul spent a few months in Guatemala and by 2003 was juggling fire sticks in front of the cathedral in San Pedro Sula. Like many foreigners in Honduras Paul eventually gravitated towards the Bay Islands; and in June 2003, with his dog JJ, he landed on Roatan.
Paul found a cheap place to stay in West End, and was soon performing at the Monkey Bar in exchange for food, a couple beers and a bed to sleep in. His notoriety grew and within a couple weeks he was performing at Twisted Toucan and Mono Loco. Barely a month went by and Paul was doing four to five fire shows every night. He had come to the island at just the right time.
His first resort contract began with a gig at Henry Morgan Resort, and soon more resorts were interested in his performances. Performing at resorts was to become Paul’s bread and butter.
The vagabond that he is, Paul has managed to stay on Roatan for a long time. He has done it for Djenaba, his daughter who was born in 2005. Now that Djenaba is six, she is participating in fire shows along her father and sometime alongside her aunt, Cecilia Collins.
Cecilia, a shy 20-year-old, began performing with Paul four years ago. Djenaba, now six, does a hula-hoop routine in front of mesmerized tourists. While Djenaba doesn’t yet perform with fire, it’s just a matter of time before she will.
While there are occasional fire artists who visit Roatan, nothing quite compares to the quality of the show Paul can put on. “Nobody brings in nothing better than what I have going on,” says Paul about his show.
Over the years Paul has performed for three Honduran presidents–Maduro, Zelaya and Micheletti–and hasn’t given up on giving a show to Pepe Lobo. “I am really representing Roatan,” he says.
Fire dancing is a gypsy’s life. Five nights a week Paul Abel packs his fire equipment into a black canvas bag and heads to a resort to do his 20 minute performance. When his beat-up Toyota 4-runner is broken down, he slings his bag across his back and sets off on his yellow Yamaha scooter. Every Wednesday night he performs at Anthony’s Key Resort. He says “dance de fuego” to a Spanish security guard at Anthony’s Key as he carries his equipment onto a boat that takes him to the key for a performance. It’s now a routine: He’s set up and ready to begin a show in ten minutes.
In his black bag Paul carries all his supplies: two sets of chains, ropes, three fire sticks, a fire whip, a fire hoop. The fire dancing requires a whole lot of accessories and most of his fire dancing equipment Paul makes himself. “I can only do it because I make them myself,” says Paul, who explains how he manages to hold fire poi in his bare hands without being burned for as long as seven seconds. “It all depends on the wind direction.” To make the fire sticks that he spins and twirls around his torso and head, he buys brooms and disassembles the brushes. Paul’s house is full of unused, abandoned broom heads, bought only for their pine handles. His fire sticks typically last around 25 shows, or at Paul’s performance rate, around three weeks.
All fire artists practice with poi, and Paul makes his practice poi out of a key ring, a fishing swivel, a nylon dog handle, and a sliced open tennis ball. To build a fire-burning material base, Paul buys 100 foot rolls of three-inch wide Kevlar tape. He rolls the tape into a cylinder shape and secures it with metal wire to a chain. Dunked in gasoline and lit on fire during the performances, the tape can last for as many as 100 shows.
He travels with a paint bucket filled with gasoline, using one gallon of gas per show. Into the bucket he dunks his Kevlar fire poi, fire sticks, hoops and other paraphernalia. “I create a heart out of gasoline and light it on fire around the couple. They love it,” says Paul.
His newest purchase is a fire whip. The eight-ft-long whip is made out of three different thicknesses of rope. The light of the fire whip lasts maybe 30 seconds, so Paul can crack it four or five times before the flame dies out. “I still can’t spin it around my head and crack it,” says Paul.
Another one of Paul’s fire dancing skills is blowing a 15 ft high chimney of fire. He used to blow fire using liquid paraffin, but when his supply on Roatan ran out, he switched to kerosene. Now he doesn’t do fire breathing very often. He typically saves it for very special occasions such as a “wedding show,” the more sophisticated show on his repertoire. “It’s carcinogenic,” Paul says about the practice of fire breathing. “You can get cancer of the throat, of the mouth, tongue.”
Paul doesn’t want his act to be stagnant. “I want to evolve, to do something bigger. I want to do the best fire show,” said Paul. “It’s a Caribbean style fire show with music, dancing.”