Playing with Fire 

Code Changes Could Snuff Indoor Fire Dancing in Portland

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IT'S LESS THAN a week until the Fire Entertainer of the Year show at Dante's nightclub, and host Jaime Leona couldn't feel less prepared. But it's not ticket sales or finding a lineup of fire-slinging dancers that has her on edge. On Sunday, May 27, the night of the show, a newly modified fire code takes effect—and it could potentially shut down the annual bash, along with other indoor fire dancing acts all across the city.

To account for the surging popularity of the art form, Portland's fire bureau recently decided to adjust its 11-year-old fire code by requiring a minimum distance of 25 feet between performer and audience, and fire sprinklers installed in the venue's ceiling. The changes, promoters say, essentially mean that all current entertainment venues, aside from the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, will fall outside the guidelines. What the city sees as a safety precaution, dancers and venue owners see as the demise of their business.

"Following the stage requirements would mean our customers would have to stand outside. It's impossible," says Shon Boulden, co-owner of both Dante's and Devils Point strip club. Boulden says fire dancing has been a staple at Devils Point for over 10 years, and that it's one of the main attractions drawing downtown customers to his Southeast business. He says the city likely changed the code because of the growing contingent of amateur fire dancers in the area.

"Our girls are experienced and take utmost precautions in everything they do," he says. "We've never had any sort of accident."

And he is not alone in his frustrations. Boulden, along with other venue owners and performers, has taken up arms against what he calls "extreme" regulations, leading to a few meetings with the fire marshal's office. The group's solution? Require all fire dancers to pass a permit test to perform indoors in hopes to weed out anyone who's not safe.

Assistant Fire Marshal Doug Jones says the talks have been amiable.

"Believe it or not, we're relatively easy to get along with," says Jones. "We're here to help, not to put people out of business."

He says that the office has been working with Dante's, Devils Point, and other venues to modify their space. But some clubs, he says, including Devils Point, are in a "hard place." And while he's encouraged by the professional-seeming idea of a permit, Jones says the fire bureau is in no position to manage the process. For now, he says, the code will remain in place.

The host of the event at Dante's—Leona, a longtime Portland fire performer who dances as "Miss Steak"—isn't ready to settle. "I've followed the rules the entire time I've been in the business," says Leona, who has been dancing at Devils Point for years. "I personally think the fire chief doesn't understand the industry enough to make the call. Our jobs are on the line—it's time to make a compromise."

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