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Studio 454 brings the art of fire poi to Boise

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For those of you who have always considered doing aerobics but have never felt comfortable in a gym full of meatheads, I feel your pain. If you are someone who loves to dance but fears the notion of "grinding" with degenerate strangers, I'm right there with you. But ... have you ever thought about combining these two activities in a non-predatory, open-minded environment? Add fireballs, flame spitting and back flips to the mix, and you've got a hot ticket to a new form of dance and exercise. And it just so happens, you can find it at a new dance studio right here in Boise.

Studio 454 is located in West Boise, and co-owners Tracy Gassel and Brodie Goodwin are using it as a vehicle to teach the art of Poi, a form of traditional Polynesian fire dance. I admit I had only a vague understanding of what it means to "fire dance." I have been to a handful of drum circles in the valley and have witnessed people aimlessly swinging chains with fireballs at the ends, but didn't think they had any clue as to what they were doing. Gassel and Goodwin happen to be masters of their craft and have made the artistic decision to shake things up a bit and do it their own way. Like all forms of expression, there are rules to follow, and there are rules to break, and these two women do both effortlessly.

I met with them at their spacious studio to become enlightened in the ways of Poi. I didn't really know what to expect, although I had envisioned a dark room tangled in tropical vines and incense smoke, and was genuinely surprised to find a well-kept, professional space. Both women are young and full of energy, and it's obvious they're very passionate about what they do.

They explained to me that traditional Poi is a form of dance that features flaming balls and choreographed moves set to Polynesian rhythms. It's a part of the Polynesian cultural heritage and is considered to be a religious spiritual experience, but Gassel and Goodwin have added their own style to it. They have danced together for eight years and have performed Poi consistently for three years. They both realize that dancing is essentially aerobic exercise and don't see any reason why Poi can't be an aerobic sport. They also realize the best setting for exercise isn't complete until you have high-energy music on in the background. Studio 454 may be the only place in town that will let you swing fire around your head while listening to Pantera and Danzig.

It would seem logical that people with a traditionalist view of Poi would object to heavy metal and high-energy aerobics during a spiritually meditative dance, but Gassel and Goodwin insist their approach is in no way disrespectful to any heritage. They encourage others to collaborate with them, to join in the fun and focus on gaining control of their physical health while being exposed to something new and different.

They have big plans for turning their space into an open community workout area. Both Gassel and Goodwin work hard at their night jobs in order to pay rent on their business, and their dedication to each other and the common goal of the company is astounding. They gave me a demonstration of some of their moves, and I was amazed at the talent they possess. They blow drum-circle hippies out of the water. They were even nice enough to show me a few moves and then gracious enough to tell me I was doing well, even as I fumbled around. After a while, I got the hang of it and really enjoyed the rhythm of swinging a ball and chain around.

Goodwin explained to me that their Poi approach is very trance-oriented, and it's intended to be a relaxing form of exercise, despite the fact it can be physically strenuous. They are actively seeking people to participate in class sessions, which focus on aerobic activity, hand-eye coordination and agility. All sessions are open to all ages, and they are also offering a summer youth program, which should be a great resource for parents who are interested in getting their children involved. It's a very safe environment, and the owners insist that a person can only handle flames if he or she is an adult. Every Saturday, the studio will also host an open house for their students so they can have a chance to mingle and learn from one another.

Those who love Poi and want to devote more time and energy to it have an exciting opportunity to try out for Burning Desire 454, a dance group started by Gassel and Goodwin. They have already met with Boise Burn, the local indoor arena football team, and have landed the opportunity to perform at the Burn's first game on April 21. There are also other opportunities to perform more traditional forms of Poi through Burning Desire at local luaus and other parties. Also, if you happen to be a belly dancer, baton twirler, gymnast or acrobat, they encourage you to become involved.

It was exciting to meet Gassel and Goodwin and to see them doing what they love, and doing it with all they have. I asked if they had any last words for me before I left, and they said, almost in unison, "If you can't excel and grow, why live?" as if it's the mantra that guides them through life. It probably is, too--they live for what they do. I had one more question though: "What's with the '454'?" "We're three degrees hotter than fire," Gassel said confidently.

Classes are held Mon.-Tues., 7-10 p.m. For more information, call 208-376-6680. Studio 454, 8749 Hackamore, Boise. www.myspace.com/studio454.

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