Dancers of the flame: a look at Papua New Guinea’s fire dancers


In the village of Gaulim in East New Britain, Kate Webster witnesses the tribal spectacle of a fire dance.

Dancers from the Baining Fire Dance Festival, otherwise known as the Gazelle District Festival. Credit: Kate Webster

From the jungle, one by one, the dog-like men – torsos painted with clay, grass hair long down their backs – appeared, stirring up the crowd as they moved around the field until a circle formed. The thudding beat of a bamboo pole thrust against the ground initiated the dance. The pack stamped their feet to music before momentarily stopping to flex their claws and growl at the crowd.

So began the build-up to the Baining Fire Dance, an ancient fire dance ritual performed to summon the spirit world, and that has long mystified and captured the imaginations of those lucky enough to witness it. Dancers perform to welcome births, celebrate the start or end of the harvest, to remember the dead and to initiate young men into adulthood.

“Without warning, the first dancer exploded through the fire, kicking embers high into the air.”

Originally started in 2019, the Gazelle District came together to establish the festival previously known as the Baining Fire Dance Festival, recognising that, through festivals and cultural displays, visitors can delve into the anthropological secrets of Papua New Guinea’s rich cultural traditions. Based in East New Britain Province and held across two days, with over 50 masked performances, the unique cultures and subcultures on display give an insight into how diverse the region is.

What makes this festival different to some of the more popular and longer-running festivals conducted at showgrounds is that it takes you directly into the villages.

The ‘dog’ men I witnessed were Eseng villagers, performing the Imga. The story goes that long ago an old woman took care of many dogs. One day, she gathered her dogs at home, warning them not to wander about the bush as there was a prowling bad spirit that might kill and eat them.

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Dancers from the Baining Fire Dance Festival. Credit: Kate Webster

Safe at home, the old woman played a bamboo musical instrument and she and the dogs began to dance around. The dancing warded off the bad spirit, and so the people have continued this tradition of dance since.

Throughout the festival, various tribes emerged from the jungle and shared their stories with the audience. I witnessed tribes transform as geckos, cassowaries, lizards, frogs, birds and spirits that set my imagination alight.

In the evening, the masked men of the Linganga appeared for the Baining Fire Dance. With their skin painted black, it was hard to see any human form in the darkness, just huge elaborate masks with enormous eyes and protruding beaks that looked like those of ducks. One by one, they passed around the fire before lining up behind its flickering flames.

Without warning, the first dancer exploded through the fire, kicking embers high into the air.

In an almost trance-like state, each summoned up the courage to take turns running through the roaring fire. Every burst of sparks was as dramatic as the last, raining down like fireworks.

This entrancing performance continued into the night until the fire died down to glowing embers.

It was a privilege to witness something that, until fairly recently, was relatively unknown to the wider world.

Air Niugini flies from Port Moresby to Tokua Airport, which services Kokopo and Rabaul, 14 times a week. This is an edited version of an original article first published in the April–June 2024 issue of Paradise, the in-flight magazine of Air Niugini. 

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