Playing With Fire

“When you go back to class with no eyebrows, at least you’ll have a story to tell.”

“Step one: make a fire ball. Step two: do all the tricks.”

“It’s actually surprisingly hard to light things on fire.” “Challenge accepted.”

Spending time with the Jumbo Jugglers is a bit of an onslaught on your senses.

As dubstep plays from speakers in the grass, the cold air whips around the Rez Quad, and the smell of Coleman fuel fills the air, club members alternate between quips like the above and unrestrained shouting. And that’s without mentioning the main event: they’re all cheering, for the most part, for their friends inside the fenced-off square spinning flaming staffs, clubs, and poi.

Josh Mermelstein has been juggling for eight years, four of them before arriving at Tufts, but his parents forbade him from adding fire to the mix until he lived on his own. Now, as co-president of the club, he organizes the weekly spin jams that draw students, alumni, and community members to Tufts’ open fields to learn from each other and show off their skills.

While he admits the club “has been dwindling for the past couple of years,” he’s excited about this year’s crop of newbies and the potential for growth.

One of those freshmen is Shane Rozen-Levy, who joined the club on a whim during the first week of school.

“I never really had much interaction with fire. Like, I’ve lit fires, I’ve gone camping—I know what fire’s like. But to really manipulate fire and to spin it around something that is actively burning is a very strange experience,” he explains.

“It’s very loud. It’s bright and it’s dark and you can’t see much. You just have to go by feel and the giant lights at the end [of your staff].”

Mermelstein echoes Rozen-Levy’s description: “The thing that no one tells you is the crazy sound. When fire’s moving it makes this loud whooshing noise that just, like, engulfs your senses. You’ve got these huge lights, these huge sounds, everyone around you is cheering because you’ve just gone out there for the first time. It’s a very big experience. At the same time, it’s a kind of a scary experience.”

So I wasn’t the only one overwhelmed by my first experience with fire manipulation, even though I stayed on the sidelines. But still, “it’s not as dangerous as you might think,” Mermelstein explains, adding that he’s “caught the burning end of flaming things” in the past.

The club is willing to share their knowledge with any and all interested students. They practice every Thursday evening, though the location varies based on season and weather, and their annual Winter Object Manipulation Bootcamp at Tufts (WOMBAT) is coming up next semester.

Header image: still from video by Eugene Kong.

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