A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (2024)

Wendy Winkler took down her wedding picture from where it hung on the wall in her living room, a small smile spreading across her face as she gazed at the image, reminiscing on the joyful occasion.

“Oh my God, it was the most amazing fire ever,” she said.

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  • Emily Hemphill

It’s not exactly how most people would describe their wedding day, but then again, Winkler and her husband, Kirk Conard, aren’t like most people — they’re fire spinners.

Ahead of their wedding Winkler and Conard constructed a 24-foot “temple,” fashioned out of scrap wood.

“We found this oak tree that was hollow, and we took it apart in six pieces,” said Winkler. “We put it up on top and put it back together, so it was like this chimney. And then, the bottom we made it super artistic looking like you were underneath the tree.”

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“So, when we got married, we burnt it down,” she said, adding that just as the flames reached their peak, the sky opened up and it began to pour. The water failed to dampen the fiery festivities as the newlyweds began “dancing in the mud” and twirled flaming staffs together. Winkler’s wedding dress even briefly caught on fire.

Christened the “KDub Unival,” the wedding celebrated unity in a broad sense. Winkler said she and her husband wanted to celebrate the community that “keeps us straight and supports us.” Several of their friends in attendance took the opportunity to renew their own vows at the wedding. Another couple even got engaged.

“We’re constantly with all these people and creating and everything,” Winkler said. “This was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this together, this co-creation of something bigger.’ That’s a lot of what Kirk and I really enjoy, we’re always the hub.”

The 250-person ceremony took place over the course of an entire weekend, aligned with the summer solstice in June of 2014, in an Albemarle County field. Along with the temple, Winkler, Conard and their resourceful friends built 13 different dome-like “camps,” each providing a different service to guests, including a beverage camp, kitchen camp, costume camp, kid-friendly camp, even a healing camp offering massages.

Before any construction could begin on the wooden structures, the group had to figure out a way to get all of the building materials across a wide creek. So, they did what they always do: brought their community together to accomplish something that would be near impossible for a single person to accomplish. In this case, it was building a 40-foot bridge over the course of four months to span the creek.

A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (3)

“We got eight telephone poles, and we got scrap oak planks from our other friend who works at a lumber yard,” said Winkler, who added that an engineer friend designed the project. “Our other friend got a Bobcat, and he cleared the trees. And then our other friend had an I-beam just sitting around.”

This isn’t just how Winkler and Conard go about hosting “the most absurd wedding,” as Winkler put it. Gathering friends together, forming a “wide base,” creating art, supporting one another, playing with fire, is the way they go about their daily lives.

“If you have this wide base, then you can just do so much more and have richer experiences when you just kind of spread it out,” said Winkler.

“Doing so much more” is especially true when it comes to transforming an ordinary school bus into a mobile, flame-throwing art gallery and nightclub, complete with a lounger and bar — strictly nonalcoholic due to licensing reasons.

They call her the Rusty Iris.

A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (4)

The Rusty Iris

The endeavor began on a frigid morning last January. More than 40 people — some of whom known to the couple and others friends of friends — gathered in the back of Winkler and Conard’s Crozet home.

The yard alone is a sight to behold: a small barn-like structure in one corner houses a work table covered in welding masks and enough tools for an entire construction crew, a shed on the opposite side serves as a hot yoga studio with a guest room attached that Winkler and Conard lived in for two years while working on their home and elsewhere various pieces of fire-spinning equipment, a chicken coop and speakers always playing music, and at the heart of it all, a fire pit.

On this winter particular day, the group was there to launch what would be a yearslong project: constructing the Rusty Iris.

“We took off the back two-thirds of the bus body,” said Winkler. “Forty-seven people rolled up in their Carhartts and we, Amish-style, removed the back of the bus.”

Roughly five months later, the vehicle bears little resemblance to its original form. Now, an open-air “canvas of steel on wheels,” as Winkler affectionately refers to it, the back of the bus is fitted with a giant, fiberglass orb lined with cushioned seats and stairs winding to an open-air top level where there is dedicated space for a DJ’s booth.

A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (5)

In their fashion, the Rusty Iris was a collaborative effort among Winkler, Conard and their motley crew: one painter friend decorated the vehicle’s exterior; another artist designed the catwalk running along the top; a carpenter is fashioning the bar that will be installed on the bottom.

Despite the fact that neither have any formal training, Winkler and Conard did a majority of the project’s welding. Born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, Conard’s “love affair with steel and metal” was sparked when he took a metal working class in the seventh grade. It wasn’t long until he was begging his bewildered parents for an “art master Lincoln Flux-Cored welder” for Christmas.

While he might not have entirely understood his son’s newfound obsession, Conard’s father, a painter, did help nurture his hobby, which Conard kept up through college and while living in New Hampshire and Maine. It was in the Northeast where he was also first introduced to the art of playing with fire and familiarized himself with the tools of that trade: staffs, rope darts, Hula Hoops and machetes.

Sometimes all Conard uses is a mouthful of pure paraffin lamp oil to “breathe” or “eat” the flames, which, unsurprisingly, “tastes really terrible.” And if the kerosene-like taste and texture isn’t enough to dissuade the untrained from attempting the feat, Conard, who caught his head on fire on one occasion, has a word of caution: “If you accidentally swallow it, a teaspoon just sends you to the hospital right away. It is poison.”

Ever the entertainer, he did add, “but it looks so cool. … It looks amazing.”

A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (6)

Of course, the Rusty Iris wouldn’t be complete without a fiery touch, which is where the metal poles filled with liquid propane on the side of the cab come into play.

“So whoever’s DJ-ing would be like, ‘drop the bass’ and then just throw nice, little burning flames off to the side that just kind of gives an ambience,” said Conard.

The Rusty Iris is more than a side project taking up a majority of their backyard. The final objective: Burning Man.

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Held in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada, Burning Man attracts the creative, liberated, adventurous and radically self-expressive by the tens of thousands to participate in a “global cultural movement,” which features the largest convergence of fire performers in the world. Few rules regulate the weekslong gathering outside of ten principles written by co-founder Larry Harvey that emphasize gift-giving, interactivity and co-creating art of every variety.

A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (7)

One of the more well-known characteristics of Burning Man is the “mutant vehicles” that various groups showcase at the event, which takes place in “Black Rock City,” a temporary town constructed each year to serve as the gathering’s setting. In 2022, Black Rock City spanned just over six square miles to hold roughly 75,000 participants.

Winkler and Conard originally hoped the Rusty Iris would be ready to join this year’s roster of mutant machinery. However, welding a school bus into a fire-spitting, disc-jockeying lounge on wheels is more time-consuming than they had planned, especially with their day jobs as a French teacher and fiber optic technician for Ting Internet. Winkler estimates they have about another year’s worth of work left before the vehicle is fully operational and they can make the cross-country trek and join Burning Man in August 2025.

But it won’t just be the two of them. They’ll be accompanied by some in their tightknit community of friends and fire spinners: the Bad Hat Fire Troupe.

A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (8)

Bad Hat Fire Troupe

There’s a good chance that some Charlottesville-area residents have already witnessed the dazzling, and slightly terrifying, spectacle that is the Bad Hat Fire Troupe. The group can be found swinging poi — two short ropes with flaming balls attached on either end — on the Downtown Mall during the Tom Tom Festival as children scramble up and down the Rusty Iris and at Ix Art Park throughout the year, twirling staffs, one of Winkler’s favorite “toys.”

“It’s my most heartfelt thing because I can be really expressive with it,” she said, referring to the staff as her dance partner. “Pretty much, you can tell how good my life is at any given moment on how much I’m dancing. Like, the sh*tty times in my life, I am not dancing. So I try to dance as much as I can.”

Though it may not appear so to the wide-eyed spectators at Bad Hat shows, the fire troupe’s routines are not choreographed. The spinners move to the music and to the atmosphere — sometimes shooting a rope dart in the direction of a child staring in wonder, sometimes giving an audience member a wink before swallowing a burning stick.

“People love it, you know?” said Winkler. “I forget that a lot of people have never seen fire before. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, this is a novelty. People don’t do this all the time.’ I’m always like, ‘Wait … people don’t spin fire once a month?’”

On some occasions, the fire spinners take a slower pace, produce a more personal performance, almost slip into a meditative state in front of the crowd as they focus their energy of channeling the flames.

A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (9)

“You see the trails, and when you realize that you’re directing a crucial element, you can get in your own little headspace,” said Conard. “There’s times of, like, ‘I’m going to play with the audience’ and other times of ‘I could be completely alone.’ It would be better really, just playing with this fire.”

Winkler and Conard founded Bad Hat Fire Troupe in 2021, in part to fund their work on the Rusty Iris but also to more formally unite roughly 15 people they had been spinning with for years, mostly at gatherings held on the full moon in their backyard. Last year, they were hired to perform at nine events, including local festivals and private parties, where they spin for up to three sets, each lasting 20 to 25 minutes.

“We’re just having a good time; we just love it,” said Winkler. “Through building the fire troupe, through having these parties, through building the art and going to all these things, we really have this nice, tight group of people.”

While it may slip under the radar of many in the area, Central Virginia’s fire community has long been burning bright.

In the early 2000s, a fire circus occasionally performed at a warehouse in what is now-Ix Art Park, according to Winkler. The group disbanded after the structure was torn down, but its members continued to practice their craft at regional FlowFest workshop retreats for spinners and various informal events, the occasional full-moon potluck and “beet juice party.”

A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (10)

Winkler’s first encounter with fire spinning was on trips to Oregon and New Zealand in 2008. After returning home to Charlottesville, where she was born and raised, she was determined to learn and she began to put YouTube tutorials to the test in her backyard. Shortly after, she spun in front of other people for the first time at a fire jam held outside of the McGuffey Art Center in downtown Charlottesville.

“I think one of the people who now spin with me laughed at me,” recalled Winkler. “It was a total rush. Oh my God, I was shaking, so crazy. I just knew enough to not catch myself on fire.”

It wasn’t long before she weaved herself into the fabric of the local community of fire spinners and joined Scintillation Fire Troupe. Running from 2009 to 2013, the group performed across the region, including at popular events such as FloydFest and the Rooster Walk Music Festival.

As Winkler first got involved with Scintillation, she brought along the man she’d just started dating, who recently moved from the Northeast and was “bummed out” by the lack of a fire community in his new home.

She first met Conard when she took a hot yoga class he was teaching where she likened his instruction style to that of a “drill sergeant.”

A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (11)

“He gave this one girl such a hard time that she had to leave the room,” Winkler recalled with a laugh. “And then he went out and checked on her. When she came back in, he sat next to her for the whole rest of class.”

As Conard’s heated, torture session drew to a close, he guided his students through a final breathing exercise, telling them to relax their face, “so you kind of look like a zombie.” When he asked the class if anyone hadn’t seen a zombie movie, Winkler proudly stuck her hand in the air and Conard’s face fell.

For Winkler, it was love at first sight, though Conard said he was a little more hesitant about someone who’d never seen “Zombieland.” Yet as their paths began to cross more frequently, the two discovered they had more in common than their first encounter might have indicated. One of these shared passions: fire spinning.

Their connection goes deeper than simply dancing with fire. Both are drawn to the periphery of what is possible, pushing their physical and mental limits, toeing the line between the challenging and the impossible and sometimes getting burned — literally.

“I like clear lines. I toy with lines a lot, like, the gray ones are bad,” Winkler said. “All these things that we do … there is no room for f—king around. It really just kind of simplifies things, I’d say, maybe that’s what it’s about. And it smacks your ego down a little bit.”

A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (12)

The pursuit of forced focus takes on various forms for Winkler: spinning, welding, backpacking through the wilderness alone, even hot yoga.

“The room is 110 degrees. That’s forced focus,” she said of the workout. “You will pass out if you’re not paying attention to your breathing and your body and your limitations.”

Winkler bears the scars from the moments when her ego overpowered her focus and her eyes strayed from the line. One such slip was in 2018 at a regional burn where she, as she put it, “was doing everything wrong” and the flames “totally kicked my ass.” Ironic for a party with roughly 50 other fire spinners in attendance, no on there knew how to treat a burn. She now bears an arrowhead-shaped memento from the incident on her torso. She also placed a friendly reminder for herself above her dining table: a sign that reads, “Fire is never a gentle master.”

“As soon as you think you have it all in control,” she said, “and are taking advantage of the fact that you’re playing with something very powerful —”

“— you catch your head on fire,” interjected Conard with a laugh.

Emily Hemphill (540) 855-0362

ehemphill@dailyprogress.com

@EmilyHemphill06 on X

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A troupe of Virginia fire spinners shares the painful risks, healing rewards of their craft (2024)

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