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West Virginia man ablaze about firebreather world records (with video)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- No, he didn't play with fire as a kid.

But Davi Della Fiamma sure plays with it now -- carefully and with keen attention to technique, he will be quick to point out.

You'd have to have mad skills, after all, in trying to set three international Guinness Book of World Records for fire performance. That's what Della Fiamma will attempt at Saturday's Smoke on the Water Chili Cook Off along Kanawha Boulevard, as this summer's edition of the two-week citywide FestivALL Charleston figuratively and literally heats up.

"We'll be going for three world records -- one for height of a fireball, one for continuous flame and one for fireballs in a minute," said Della Fiamma, whose stage name translates to something akin to "Davey of the Flame."

Della Fiamma will make the attempt at the chili fest as the band 600lbs of Sin performs its turbo-charged brand of rock starting 1:30 p.m., on the Boulevard alongside Haddad Riverfront Park.

Kids, don't try this at home.

"The highest flame by a firebreather is 26 feet, 5 inches," said Della Fiamma. "The longest continuous flame is 9.8 seconds and then there's 82 fireballs in a minute. I'll be trying to break all three of those on Saturday."

If trying to spout a nearly 27-foot-long ribbon of flame out of your mouth sounds hazardous, well, you'd be right about that, especially if you don't have your best game on.

To put it another way, there's a reason Della Fiamma no longer has a long-ish beard but a very close-cropped one. It can be summed up in two words: 'face wick.'

"I light myself on fire pretty regularly. I used to have a much longer beard and a mustache at one time, until I kept lighting those on fire and decided to get rid of the wick on my face. But you wear the right clothes and take proper precautions and limit the danger as much as you can."

Don't expect a tell-all when you query him on what it is he's sipping when he puts a small blue ceramic jug to his lips prior to spouting off like a human dragon.

"Not alcohol," Della Fiamma said. "That's about as far as I go with most people. A lot of people who want to try it, that's what they try to use -- and that's really dangerous. I also don't want to encourage people to try it who shouldn't be."

Della Fiamma only took up fire performance a little over a year ago, adding to a repertoire of skills that include being a musician, juggler and instructor in African and Middle Eastern hand drumming.

Interestingly, his long-time experience playing saxophone and other wind instruments gave him a lip up when he took on fire performance, he said. "It's a similar technique to actually playing a trumpet. So, it's something I caught on quickly."

His fiancée, Pixie Della Fiamma, a veteran belly dancer on the regional festival circuit, actually got into the fire arts first. She dances -- undulates, might be a better word -- with props lit with fire.

"I'd already worked with silk fans as a belly dancer," Pixie said. "So, it was kind of a natural transition. It was scary the first time -- the amount of heat was sort of surprising."

The two of them are part of a performance troupe known as the Po' Folks Cabaret. Adding fire arts to the cabaret's lineup was a natural succession for a troupe that harkens back to the long tradition of traveling performers, Vaudeville, circus crews and other acts on the fringe.

"We like to tell people we're two steps up from being carnies," Pixie said.

Fire has long been used to fascinate and lure audiences, she said.

"Barnum and Bailey had many, many different fire performers. It's always been a big draw -- if you look at the World Fair in the early 1900s, there were fire-eaters and fire jugglers there. So, it has always been sort of a fringe theme."

Davi, who was born in New Orleans, home to many an offbeat performer, did most of his growing up in Clay and Putnam counties. He later attended Glenville State and then got a degree from Marshall University. "Not in firebreathing," he helpfully noted. "I have a bachelor's in religious studies from Marshall."

Coupled with a minor in music, his plan at the time was to pursue graduate study in ethno-musicology. Sometimes roads diverge rather differently from plans. So, this Saturday, he'll be going for the gold, fire-wise, while trying to retain what remains of his strategically cropped facial hair.

"It's performance art, so we certainly don't want to burn the place down. But we want to push the envelope for performance," Della Fiamma said. "It's fire, and everybody can relate to that -- everybody's been burnt. It's more about creating the illusion of danger than actually being in danger through using the right techniques."

Like, for instance, when was the last time you set your fingers on fire -- deliberately?

"When people see me lighting my fingers on fire and blowing fireballs and things like that, they can relate to being burnt," he said, "but the trick is doing it without getting hurt."

A note to the weather gods -- Della Fiamma would like to put in a request for no wind about the time that 600lbs of Sin flips on its amps. He is confident he is a world record contender, but, please, no strong puffs of wind.

"It's stuff I'm pretty sure I can do, given the right conditions," he said. "We're doing it outside, so wind is going to be a real factor. Any real wind will mess things up for me."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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