When I ask Ivan to teach me how to dance barefoot on top of a smoldering fire, I secretly expect to learn his secret trick and be one of the only people outside of their circle who knows how it actually works. He agrees to show me and we arrange to meet in Yasna Polyana, a village near the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast. Maybe he will spray my feet with something to protect them from the burning embers. Perhaps this is just a visual illusion and barefoot fire dancers are like magicians pretending to cut bodies in half. Looking forward to an exclusive story, I travel to the village, passing through flocks of storks that are covering the green meadows. It is as if they are snow. I not surprised that upon arrival I see the statue of a wooden stork, Yasna Polyana’s treasured symbol.
Ivan and his father Mihail tell me they are the last hereditary barefoot fire dancers in Bulgaria, known as nestinari, who perform an ancient Bulgarian ritual that is originally celebrated every June 3rd for St. Constantine and Helen’s day. But performances can be found during the whole summer season. Although this dance is quite commercialized and there are many who perform it, the father and son I have a chance to meet come from an 110-year-old bloodline of fire dancers. Born in 1906, Mihail’s grandmother is the first known fire dancer in the family who used to live in Bulgari, a village not too far from Yasna Polyana. Mihail tells me the story of how his grandmother’s passion to dance on burning embers would eventually take her life. His grandfather was devoutly religious and forbid his wife from performing what he felt was a pagan ritual. Like forbidden love, it made her desire to fire dance grow stronger. Years passed, and on St. Constantine and Helen’s day, Mihail’s grandfather left his wife alone and locked her in the house so that she could not go to the village square and dance with the other nestinari. Enchanted by the bagpipe’s song, she felt a desperate urge to dance. There had to be a way. She felt as if she had to dance now. Then Mihail’s grandmother thinks of a way to give her heart what it wants – she takes burning coals from the fireplace and puts them on the wooden floor. And she dances, entranced until the house starts to burn. The grandfather came home from the fields to find his house burnt with his beloved but rebellious wife inside. Devastated, the grandfather curses Bulgari, leaves the village and settles in Yasna Polyana. But this doesn’t stop his son, Mihail’s father, from continuing the tradition and thus bypassing his military service obligation.
Mihail is 17 when he tries fire dancing for the first time. He admits it took him a lot of effort and years to learn how to perform. Like any skill, nestinarstvo also requires practice, patience, and persistence. Mihail believes he has passed these traits to his son, Ivan – a young IT specialist by profession. There is a stereotype, even in my open mind, that fire dancers perform a religious ritual, foretell the future or induce a trance state that makes their feet feel freezing cold before they step on the red smoldering coals. But Ivan quickly busts this stereotype by describing nestinarstvo as an art. ‘You have to make the audience feel the emotion, it is a mix of different components – history, ritual, focus, dance and talent,’ he told me. Ivan has a huge responsibility as he is the last person in the family who can continue the bloodline and carry on its tradition, which is one of the reasons why his father often nags him to get married and have children.
It takes hours for the fire to start dying, which is when I decided to put my 100 years old national dress on. I realize it is sewn during the same period that Ivan’s great grandmother used to be alive. It is not that every Bulgarian has one, it’s just I am a huge fan of the traditional clothing and I have an authentic collection. And I want to make this unique experience as amazing as possible. The musicians start to play and Ivan takes a paddle to spread the embers into the shape of a star, or a starfish, that he then reshapes into a circle. The heatwave hits my face and I begin to doubt my desire to risk getting severe burns, ending in a hospital. But it is probably too late. Dressed in a museum-quality piece, everybody who has gathered around the circle is looking at me. But Ivan hasn’t told me his secret yet. How can I perform a magic trick without knowing what the illusion is? I almost give up the idea to become nestinarka and hope he and the locals forgot about my irrational intentions as I watch how Ivan’s bare feet put out the burning embers. And then suddenly he comes to me and grabs my hand, ‘You said you wanted to try. Are you ready?’ I panic and freeze for a moment, feeling like a melting ice statue. He is expecting me to really do it. But this is not fake. My delicate bare skin will touch the fire. Everybody is looking at me. It all happens in a few seconds that felt like minutes. It is as if the bagpipe is also playing on slow motion, as if it is trying to calm me down and encourage me to do it. ‘Do you think I am ready?,’ I insinuate he has maybe forgotten to tell me something. ‘You must feel it. Do you?’ Like the grandmother who died from her fiery frenzy, I crave to jump into the fire. It consumes me. I feel it. I grasp his hand, taking the leap.
It is quite a show as I wave my legs in a frantic motion rather than dancing. It burns. I almost run through the embers to reach the cold, soothing grass. But then the adrenaline hits me and I want to try this again. I’m high from this, jumping into the fire two more times. If I can ‘dance’ on fire without burning my feet then I must be invincible. It’s empowering. Maybe this is how storks feel when they fly. Examining my feet, I spot only one tiny red mark. Now I finally realize what is nestinari’s secret trick. It is to have trust in yourself and your destiny. And just jump.
Nestinarstvo can be observed at the following locations in Bulgaria:
Bulgari Village, every June 3rd
WakeUp Open Air Festival (check with festival’s program) in July
Jeravna National Costume Festival in August
Disclaimer: I don’t recommend trying it for yourself. There is a serious danger of getting severe burns and there have been cases when locals had to call an ambulance for tourists who have tried fire dancing.