Source: Joris Voeten at Unsplash, Creative Commons
Every year, thousands of fire breathers convene in Black Rock City, Nevada, on Labour Day weekend for an event called Burning Man. People come from far and wide to perform fire acts and to observe the burning of a giant wooden structure. They meet people, practice their art, and learn from peers. Hazards notwithstanding, fascination with fire breathing draws thousands to the desert every year.
Fire breathing involves tremendous risk to performers, including severe burns, inhalation of toxic combustion products, and death. Fire breathers are often perceived as “crazy” for putting their lives at risk for the sake of entertainment. So, what drives them?
To be sure, feeling idolized and cheered on draws many to it. In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, performer Richard Erno describes his experience: “I get excited more for the crowd and the exchange of energy while I am on stage. I like the look of awe on their faces that say, ‘Wow!’”
But after a while, the thrill wears off, and according to Erno, is no longer a motivating factor: “I was excited more for the crowd in the beginning, but now the act feels routine.”
Once the initial thrill is gone, it is replaced by something much more mundane: a sense of belonging. This was a theme identified in interviews with a number of fire breathers. One of the performers at Burning Man explains:
“The benefit of fire breathing to me is partaking in events such as Burning Man. It was at Burning Man where I had the opportunity to gather with other fire breathers to set the world record for most fire breathers lit in one location. I was an unknown performer invited to hang out and perform with fellow fire breathers. It was as if I had experienced a pilgrimage.”
Despite the dangers, performers believe practicing together and motivating one another makes all their sacrifices worth it. In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Tedward LeCouteur, a fire-breather and fire marshal trainer said:
“I get to be part of a fire breathing team. There are many of us in a group all doing something we love, pushing each other to be better. We keep each other on our toes, always trying to improve the acts, and push the art to places it has never been.”
This desire to belong is, of course, not unique to fire breathing. In an article published in Psychology Today, Karyn Hall explains that belonging to a special group of people is necessary for optimal mental health:
“A sense of belonging to a greater community improves your motivation, health, and happiness. When you see your connection to others, you know that all people struggle and have difficult times. You are not alone. There is comfort in that knowledge.”
Despite the dangers, fire breathers seem to benefit from being part of this unique community. And, when they join together each year at Burning Man, they are reminded of the reason they entered the profession—not for the money, the fame, or the adrenaline, but for the community that surrounds them.
David Lipson, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.