Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2020.

Playing with Fire

A veteran fire dancer sets out to give the practice more prominence in NFPA codes and standards


In 2016, Ashley Bertling had been a fire dancer for over a decade. She had founded Chicago-based Pyrotechniq Productions, an event entertainment company whose performers eat, breathe, and dance with fire. It was spring and she was preparing for a job with a client in Chicago when the client called her in a panic. The local fire marshal, the client said, wanted to make sure Bertling and the other performers’ clothing for the performance would comply with NFPA 701, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films. It was the first time Bertling had ever heard of NFPA, let alone the standard.

“I had performed all across the United States, and I had never been asked to provide this kind of information,” Bertling says. “We did our best to comply, but it was unattainable.” At the direction of the authority having jurisdiction, Pyrotechniq ended up performing the show with LED lights instead of fire, despite already having spent over $700 for their clothes to be treated with flame-resistant chemicals. The gig only paid about $300.

The experience left Bertling feeling frustrated but, more importantly, motivated to get involved with the NFPA standards process. She felt that fire dancers weren’t well represented or understood when it came to standards like NFPA 701 and NFPA 160, Standard for the Use of Flame Effects Before an Audience. She contacted NFPA but learned there weren’t any open technical committee seats.

Three years later, though, she got her chance. The NFPA 160 technical committee was in the process of adding information on fire dancers to the standard when a committee member who represented the North American Fire Arts Association died unexpectedly. “It left the committee without anyone who was experienced in the fire arts,” says Alexander Ing, the NFPA staff liaison to NFPA 160. “The committee didn’t want to be making rules regulating a community without representation.” In May 2019, Bertling was asked to fill the vacancy.

The 34-year-old Iowa native has already made an impact. The 2021 edition of NFPA 160, which went into effect in early April, includes a new chapter addressing fire dancing, which Bertling was integral in creating.

NFPA Journal recently spoke with Bertling about her contributions to the standard, how NFPA has influenced her career, and her hope for the future.

How did you get into a field as unique as fire dancing?

It was 2004, and I was dating an engineer whose sister had just come back from a trip to Australia. She brought home these things they call poi, which is Kevlar tape folded over itself to make a wick attached to the end of a chain. She held onto the chain while dipping the wick into an accelerant, and then, after removing any excess fuel from the wick, she lit the end of it on fire and began dancing around with the ball of fire.

I thought that was the coolest thing on the planet. It was just so exotic and so unique. My boyfriend and I started ordering materials from Australia, and within the next two weeks I started fabricating my own to give to all our friends so we could all be fire dancers.

How did you go from that experience to opening your own fire performance–based business just a couple of years later?

It was the demand I was seeing from people who really wanted to watch this kind of performance, combined with my own entrepreneurial spirit. I was living in Iowa at the time, and I was being asked by friends and family to come perform for birthday parties and campouts and small gatherings or outside of bars. A lightbulb went off and I realized, you know, we could probably charge people money for this. So we created a group.

Did you consider it unfair in 2016 when you were told your clothing needed to comply with NFPA 701?

Yes. When the client contacted me and told me what the fire marshal was requesting, that was the first time I was introduced to NFPA at all. I had two weeks to comply with a standard I had never heard of. So I picked up copies of NFPA 701, NFPA 160, and NFPA 1126, [Standard for the Use of Pyrotechnics Before a Proximate Audience], and I read each of them over in their entirety. I quickly realized our fire performance industry was in danger. The codes were clearly written for a different kind of performer. NFPA 160, for example, was really written for one who deals with propane being used for things like piped stage flame effects. But it was being applied to my art form that uses liquid flammables.

And this realization moved you to get involved with NFPA?

One hundred percent. I understood that the intention of the requirements was to keep us safe. But in certain circumstances I felt that they were actually making us less safe by excluding information specific to the kind of work I was doing. If I was going to continue performing, I had to make it my mission to educate both the performers and the fire safety officials about what it is that we do.

Your efforts on the NFPA 160 technical committee have resulted in a new chapter being added to the standard on fire dancers. Tell me more about that.

I thought the most important thing to start off with was differentiating between fire dancers and performers from those using propane. We started with first identifying what fire dancers are, and then moved into suggesting the clothing worn be based on the type of performance versus requiring everyone to wear fire-rated gear. The goal was to provide some guidelines, best practices, safety measures—things like safe distances between audience members and performers—without limiting artists’ abilities. It will give AHJs a starting point to look to for information on fire artists when they need to approve a fire performance in their communities.

What was it like working on your first NFPA standard?

It’s been a very positive experience. I think the best model codes come from the combined influences of both those in the technical field with technical expertise, like fire scientists and engineers, and then the applied knowledge from people like myself who have been handling fire for years.

What’s your hope for future?

I hope to build on these relationships and collaborations to create a stronger, more applicable standard. I want NFPA 160 to be the model code that is referenced across the United States to guide best practices for both artists and AHJs in this field.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Tim Gordon and Sony Productions.