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Florida teen dazzles audience
As it has gone in many recent big-time sporting events, so it went this weekend at the Polynesian Cultural Center's World Fire-knife Dance Competition, where a juvenile not only bested adult contenders, but also set new benchmarks with a gasp-getting performance.
Mikaele Oloa, a 15-year-old from Orlando, Fla., beat out a field of 21 competitors -- including finalists Brandon Maneafaiga of Waianae and Hogan Toomalatai of Samoa -- to take the championship at the annual contest, considered the Super Bowl of Samoan fire-knife dancing.
From the moment the high school sophomore hit the stage, he moved with a mix of confidence and abandon -- as if the flaming blades he carried were a wild animal only he had managed to befriend.
Using his left and right hands with equal dexterity, he threw his knives into phenomenally fast spins, risking a singed torso in executing a close-to-the-body "horizontal helicopter." Not only did he emerge unscathed, but he danced into his finale with a third fire-knife.
In the awards ceremony following the show, Isitolo Oloa -- Mikaele Oloa's father -- emphasized that his son's victory was hard-won.
"Mika was just 3 years old when he picked up the fire-knife for the first time. He practiced every day since then," said the elder Oloa, who began his own fire-knife dancing career on the island of Upolu in independent Samoa and is now his son's dance coach. "He practices before school, after school ... any chance he gets."
Mikaele Oloa arrived in Laie last week and decided then to waive his participation in the junior division of the competition in order to test his skills against more experienced dancers, his father said.
"The advice I gave him tonight was to go out there and make sure to have fun, because that's what people want to experience."
First-runner-up Hogan Toomalatai wowed the audience with agile choreography and a martial artist's grace and agility as he wove his flaming knives under and around one raised leg at a time. His final score was one point short of Oloa's total.
Third-place finisher Brandon Maneafaiga emblazoned the stage with gymnastic flourishes and a warrior air worthy of his full-body tattoo.
This year's competition seemed to underline the fact that fire-knife dancing is gaining appeal beyond its traditional roots.
One sign of this was the list of competition sponsors, which included Cirque de Soleil. Producers from the famed spectacle-making company have already cast several winners of the competition in their international shows, opening up new and exciting avenues for many local stars at the top of their fire-knife dancing game.
The pride and bravado of modern fire-knife dancing can be traced to ancient Samoan warrior dances. As a form of art and entertainment, it evolved in the hands of Letuli Olo Misilagi -- a charismatic Samoan chief who thrived as a Hollywood stuntman in the 1940s.
"Freddie" -- as he was nicknamed, after Fred Astaire -- is credited with being the first to mesmerize audiences by putting fire to the hooked implements of Samoan martial arts.
The PCC competition was established 13 years ago to promote and perpetuate the mastery of an art form that had few outlets other than Polynesian shows, where it nonetheless is most often the climactic highlight.
If OLOA'S youth isn't proof enough that kids are interested in writing the next chapter of the daring art, there was yet one more sign of this Saturday.
An incendiary warm-up to the evening's championship featured Samoan clubs from four high schools -- Moanalua, Waipahu, Kahuku and Farrington. Fire-knife dancing was not part of this program, but the student performers of traditional Samoan sasa and ma'ulu'ulu went for broke, sampling hip-hop and Jawaiian moves along with their evident mastery of centuries-old traditional dance.
Theirs was a showcase of heart and soul -- an overall vibe that choreographers of concert dance would envy. It was definite proof that the future of fire-knife dance is, well, what else? Hot, hot, hot.