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If you go
What: Spark! Circus
Where: Deer Park Pub, 1530 Leesburg Road
When: 6 to 9 p.m. today
Admission: Free-will donation for the children of Burmese refugees in Thailand.
Fire Eaters

Lauren Tourkow spins a hula hoop with lit spokes.

Fire crew

Acts raise money for kids of Burmese refugees in Thailand

Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Jules Tankel swallows fire as one of her tricks. She will perform in the Spark! Circus tonight.

The backyard of a Fort Wayne home is dark, save the light coming through the garage window. Three 20-something performers are getting ready to perform their tricks.

There is a faint odor, something like plastic burning. And then there is that sound: whoosh … whoosh … whoosh.

It’s the sound a flame makes as it is being twirled around a body on a hula hoop, or flung in a pattern from a fixed point on a steel chain.

Lauren Tourkow, 26, Brent Helmkamp, 28, and Jules Tankel, 22, are three local residents who perform with fire. They will be performing as part of Spark! Circus from 6 to 9 p.m. today at Deer Park Pub, 1530 Leesburg Road.

Tourkow and Helmkamp are in charge of the circus this year. In the event, performers raise money for the children of refugees from Burma, now known as Myanmar. Each performer pays his or her own way to travel to Thailand to perform for and donate the money raised to Burmese refugee camps, hospitals and orphanages along the way. Each performer – there are 20 – has a $1,000 fundraising goal, and the hope is to raise $15,000, Helmkamp says.

“What makes this circus very different from other circuses is there are no animals,” Tourkow says. “It’s a fire performing arts troupe.”

Poi style

Helmkamp has been spinning for about four years. He started with glow sticks and, when he saw others spin with fire, he decided to learn poi, practicing with baby shoes. The baby shoes provide a perfect first step, as he can hold on to the laces and spin the shoes. If he accidentally hits himself in the face, it doesn’t hurt, and it doesn’t burn him.

He insists poi is easier than it looks, that he rarely singes off any beard hair.

His tools are two lengths of steel chain with a Kevlar wick on the end of each. After Helmkamp soaks each wick in lamp oil – or kerosene, white gas or paraffin – Tankel lights one wick. He touches the flame to his second poi. With each wick blazing, he begins to spin the chains.

With each hand, he performs a series of precise movements, whipping each flame so fast, the fire seems to form a solid line. He extends his arms and swings the chains over his head. He holds his elbows tight to his body to create a smaller arc with the lit wicks. For one trick, he maneuvers the chains so they interlock, making each wick spin so close together, he forms a ring of fire just in front of his face.

“The fluid keeps hitting me in the face,” he says, seeming unworried.


Tourkow had just started hooping, or performing tricks with a hula hoop, when she met Helmkamp – the two are dating – at a party where he was spinning fire. Tourkow’s transition from hooping to hooping with fire seemed a natural one, she says.

Her hula hoop has protruding spokes with Kevlar wicks that she soaks in lamp oil. When each is lit, she treats the hoop as she would were it not on fire.

Tourkow hula hoops around her waist, the traditional way. But as she wiggles her hip, the hoop slides down her legs. With a quick move, she ducks in and through the flaming hoop once … twice … a third time. She swings it over her head – “Be careful the wires,” Helmkamp warns, as there are telephone wires directly over the yard – and twirls it in front of her face, as though it is on a gear of some sort.

As part of her performance, Tourkow will hoop (no flames) on her legs and around her knees while she plays music. She is a trained violinist and will play classical, circus music, funk and more as she hoops.

Fire eating

Tankel, who met Helmkamp and Tourkow through their shared hobbies, performs what is called “fire fingers.” She has caps for eight of her fingers with Kevlar wicks on the end, creating patterns and designs with the flames.

On this night, however, she demonstrates her fire-eating skills.

She has two baton-like rods with a Kevlar wick on the end of each. She soaks each in the lamp oil and lights them. Then, she puts one leg in front of the other, leans and arches her back, tipping up her chin. Tankel slowly lowers the flame into her mouth and then extinguishes the flame as she closes her mouth.

Unlike poi and hooping, fire eating can’t really be practiced without fire.

“The first time you eat fire,” she says, “you just gotta do it. When you hesitate is when you burn yourself.”

She equates the feeling of fire eating to taking a large gulp of hot coffee.

After extinguishing one flame by “eating” it, Tankel rubs the unlit wick along the inside of her forearm. She taps the lit wick on one end of her arm and quickly switches to the unlit wick. As soon as it makes contact with her skin, it lights.

She performs the same trick along her bare lower belly.

As she draws a line of lamp oil below her belly button, she grins.

“This is my favorite.”