Thanh Xuân practises her fire belly dance. — VNS Photo Minh Phuong
Minh Phương & Kiều Trinh
As the sun begins to fade over the Bắc Hưng Hải River, signalling the day is drawing to a close, a flickering flame can be seen in the distance on its banks.
An offering perhaps? A relative marking an anniversary of the passing of a loved one from time gone by? That would be most peoples’ first guess.
But these flames are far more rhythmic, dancing almost in time to the faint sounds of music that can be heard slightly above the usual din of traffic on the bridge that spans the water.
Closer inspection reveals the truth. A woman, dressed in a revealing outfit displaying far more skin than usually seen on female Hanoians, is practising her art.
Thanh Xuân is a belly dancer, one of the capital’s best, and on this particular evening as the sun sets behind her, she is perfecting her latest moves, but with a fiery twist.
This is hot stuff, and not just because of her choice of attire, but also due to her chosen method to spice up her performance.
“Fire performance is just like a kind of circus art, which is usually performed on the streets,” Xuân said.
“I tried to combine belly dancing and fire together and make it become more popular with the audience and on the stage. I found many ways to flexibly combine the two to bring the fire performance to more people.”
Xuân had been belly dancing for six years but decided her act needed freshening up, so three years ago the 29-year-old combined the dance moves she has down pat with fire.
But being a woman, and wearing the skimpy outfit of a belly dancer, Xuân encountered a number of difficulties to begin with.
She added: “Female performers face much more difficulties than male performers do. First, we often have a bigger mental barrier to fire than men do so we must overcome it. Second, when it comes to the body skin, females’ skin is more fragile and sensitive. So when we frequently work with fire and fuel, our health sometimes can be affected, especially our reproductive health and skin condition.”
When getting to grips with a new task, it is often a case of trial and error. However if fire belly dancing is your new pastime, then mistakes can be costly, and very painful.
After a long day with many performances, Xuân felt exhausted, but still had another show to do. Tired from a tough day's work, she misjudged one of her moves.
Xuân said: “Due to my poor physical strength at that time after many shows I felt quite tired. While blowing the fire, my eyebrows and eyelashes were scorched by fire. It's a memory that I will never forget in my career.”
Thankfully, this was the only real serious incident in her career. Now fire belly dancing comes easy to Xuân and she is able to mesmerise the audience with her hypnotic performances.
“I didn’t find it too difficult to combine these two kinds of art,” she said.
“Belly dance has always been my passion so when I brought in the fire, it was bringing something very new into my passion. I feel now like I have much more motivation. I don’t have any difficulties to do belly dance and fire dance at the same time.
“The thing I'm most proud of is that I think I have an upbringing that allows me to be myself and follow my passion. That’s why I hope young people if they have something they are passionate about they should try their best to achieve their dreams.”
It wasn’t always so easy for Xuân. When she first decided to belly dance at the age of 23, some people would turn up their noses at this art, wrongly believing it objectifies women, and not seeing the beauty in the dance.
She added: “When I decided to become a dancer, I encountered many difficulties, especially barriers in my own family. My family found it quite difficult to accept what I did and I had to fight for myself as well as convince my parents to allow me to pursue my passion.”
Xuân plays with fire during her performance. — VNS Photo Minh Phuong
Undeterred by thoughts of others, even those closest to her, Xuân followed her dreams. And has never looked back.
Now she feels dancing, particularly with fire, can help her live life to the full.
Xuân said: “Thanks to the combination of belly dance and fire performance, I have this second career opportunity and a fresh motivation and passion as well in my life. I can gain many experiences, go to many places, meeting different audiences and make friends all over the country.”
Additional reporting Ly Ly Cao and Viet Thang
Belly dance facts
Belly dancing is an ancient art and has been a fixture of weddings and parties in the Middle East for centuries.
In Egypt it is customary for the bride and groom at a wedding to have their picture taken with their hands on the belly dancer’s stomach.
The undulating belly movements are said to resemble a woman giving birth.
Samia Gamal is considered the Middle East’s greatest belly dancer in the 1950s and 60s. She was also an actress.
Described by some as the oldest dance in the world, belly dancing is said to date back at least to the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.)
Fire eating facts
Fire eaters don't literally eat fire. They place flames in their mouth and extinguish them.
Fire eating was a common part of Hindu, Sadhu, and Fakir performances to show spiritual attainment.
Fire eating became part of the standard sideshow acts in the late 1880s
Fire eating was often seen as one of the entry-level skills for sideshow performers