Siva afi: Australian Moemoana Schwenke a torch bearer for women’s Samoan fire-knife dancing

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Moemoana Schwenke, 19, is one of few women in the world to perform the ‘siva afi’ dance.

Moemoana Schwenke, 19, hurls blazing machetes high into the air.

Key points:

  • The Samoan ceremonial dance is traditionally performed by men
  • 19-year-old Moemoana Schwenke fought for women to compete
  • Dancers embody warriors by twirling a machete wrapped in burning fabric

The Australian is one of few women in the world to perform ‘siva afi’ or fire-knife dancing. 

The Samoan ceremonial dance is traditionally performed by men, but Moemoana was drawn to the artform after watching her father teach the dance. 

“I started when I was about 14,” she said. 

“My parents run a Pacific Cultural Arts Centre in Liverpool and my dad was teaching siva afi to classes full of boys.

“I was the only girl eager to learn and from then on I was in love.” 

A woman in a orange dress swinging a large machete on fire.

Fighting to compete

The best dancers compete in the World Fire Knife Championships, but it’s been a male-dominated affair.

Moemoana Schwenke stands on a rock in front of the ocean holding a large machete on fire.

After Moemoana and six other performers lobbied for the change, the championships added a women’s division.

For the first time ever, they were allowed to compete in this year’s championship.

“When you see a woman run out with a knife on fire it’s a big motivator because the whole dance is about embodying the warrior,” she said.

“It allows women to portray fearlessness and strength.”

Moemoana was crowned runner-up at the finals at Hawaii’s Polynesian Cultural Centre last weekend, but says the biggest victory was women’s inclusion in the event. 

“For other women to see a women’s competition is really empowering,” she said.

Hawaiian Jeralee Galeai was crowned the inaugural women’s champion.

Ancient custom, modern dance

Woman holds two flaming batons during a performance with a look of concentration on her face.

Siva afi was born as a war dance among Samoan tribes and involved male warriors twirling a machete wrapped in burning fabric.

Moemoana Schwenke says performers are able to connect with their heritage through the dance.. 

A long-exposure shot shows a ring of fire twirled by Moemoana Schwenke as she stands on a rock in front of the ocean.

“It’s an ancient dance that our ancestors would have used in warfare,” she said.

“When I’m twirling the knife I’m actually mimicking how our ancestors would have won their battles in the past.

“I really try to embody a warrior.”

Despite originating in Samoa it has spread throughout Polynesia, and is now a widely celebrated part of the region’s cultural traditions.

It’s also become a major industry, with siva afi performed to thousands of tourists at cultural showcases across the Pacific.

Cuts and burns

Today the sharpened blade has been removed but performers still twirl a blazing carved wooden machete metres into the air.

Moemoana has ended up with her fair share of injuries while performing acrobatic stunts.

“It is insane because you are twirling these sticks that are on fire at great speeds,” she said.

A woman in costume smiles swinging a long knife lit with large yellow flames.

“They’re going all around your body, behind your back, you’re throwing it up in the air, you’re catching it.”

She’s says the mixture of adrenaline and concentration means performers miss injuries until after the dance has ended.

“It’s only when you come off you know you’ve got burns and cuts.”