Poi is a Maori word meaning “ball on a string.” Maori warriors used poi as a form of exercise to train for battle. By swingingheavy poiballs, they developed sufficient wrist strength to handle various weapons.Exhibiting a Samoan warrior’s strength and battle capabilities, the early version of what became the fire knife dance (ailao) usually was performed with a war club at ceremonial events for high chiefs.Traditionally poi was never dipped in fuel and lit on fire. As discussed below, in the mid-20th century that began to happen as what amounts to a historic quirk in the evolution of the Samoan fire knife dance.
Ailao demonstrated a Samoan warrior’s battle prowess through artful twirling, throwing and catching, and dancing with a war club (NifoOti). During night dances, torches were twirled and swung about by dancers.When European and American whalers and traders sailed to Samoa, they introduced natives to long-handled blubber knifes and the hooked cane knife. The characteristic metal hook of these tools was readily incorporated into the Samoan wooden NifoOti.
It was not until 1946, however, when a Samoan-American dancer, Uluao, performing at an event in San Francisco, light his knife on fire. As the story goes, after watching a fire-eater and baton twirler perform, Uluao wrapped some towels around his knife, borrowed some fuel from the fire-eater, and lit his knife on fire for his performance. Uluao’s fire knife dance was an instant success. From that time forward, Polynesian dancing instruments of poiwere modified to be lit on fire.
The first of these fire poi performances began in the 1950s in Hawaii as a tourist attraction. From that time forward to today, the history of luau on Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and Kauai includes the fire knife dance together with bountiful luau food.