The L.A. fire artist known as Tedward saw police lights flashing out of the corner of his eye just before filling his mouth with fuel. Police cruise Culver City Park after dark sometimes and flash their lights to make their presence known, so he didn't think much of it. But then he heard voices warning him not to move. He turned to see two cops with guns drawn — rookies whose superiors had neglected to tell them to expect fire on the park's basketball courts.
Tedward had a full mouth, fuel in one hand and a torch in the other. He couldn't speak, so he stood staring for a drawn-out moment. Bystanders tried to explain, but the cops didn't understand. So Tedward made an executive decision: He turned around and breathed out a rush of flames.
"Do it again!" one rookie exclaimed.
When Tedward tells this story, he's quick to point out it happened a long time ago and that it's not indicative of a strained relationship between Burn Club, the group he started in 2004 for fire practice, and Culver City law enforcement. They're on good terms, actually, and Tedward meets with L.A. fire marshals routinely.
Still, the story of the rookies who overreacted gets at the strangeness of the scene on Culver City Park's basketball courts after hours on Wednesdays.
At one Burn Club last month, Seattle native Cypris, a tall woman in blue jeans, moved across the concrete court spinning poi, which are a pair of flaming weights attached to arm's-length chains.
Stacia, who had just finished spinning, stood beneath the hoop, wondering if she had singed anything on her face and marveling at Cypris' technique.
Scott, wearing a black fedora, held court underneath the bathroom light, giving a crash course in poi to an enthusiastic couple there for the first time. Instead of real poi, they spun weighted kneesocks.
As for Tedward, he sat on the court's sidelines next to the battery-powered sound system, fiddling with a heavy black contraption. It turned out to be a ringmaster's hat with a chamber for fuel inside and a switch the wearer can trigger covertly. He's been working on it for about eight years and, as far as he knows, no one else has a hat like it.
When Tedward debuted the hat later that night, Cypris recorded him on a handheld camera. "So, I think I've got it down," he said, before hitting the switch and sending a fireball out the top.
Burn Club is the only legal practice space for fire artists in L.A., though Long Beach's Recreation Park has a space, and Sean Driskel, who began spinning after doing his "virgin burn" circa 2009, has been trying to start Burn Club Irvine for a few years now.
Driskel may have finally found a site near Irvine, behind Huntington Beach Library. But for now he still treks up from Orange County to Culver City to practice.
If Burn Club sounds like Fight Club, that's intentional: Its logo is a bar of pink soap with block capital letters across it, just like the one Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden holds up in Fight Club movie posters.
But unlike Fight Club, where pent-up aggression defines the mood, Burn Club feels like band practice. No one judges anyone else too harshly for stumbling; no one gets special treatment for doing well.
The setup is far from haphazard: Tedward puts up his own performer's insurance to cover the group, as does Driskel when he's there.
There are 10 written rules, including "Each fire act must have a safety spotter." First-timers must learn and verbally agree to all 10, and then they're responsible for imparting them to the next newbie.
Tedward was born E.J. LeCouteur, although no one calls him that. He grew up the youngest in a fire-obsessed family of boys in Detroit, where, he says, each brother set the house on fire at least once.
He originally learned to fire-breathe because Kiss' Gene Simmons did it, and he began fire-spinning years later, after his first trip to Burning Man.
Most fire-spinning techniques have roots in the Caribbean or Hawaii — fire poi was first used in secret Hawaiian men's rituals, and Tedward likes to tell the story of meeting the first female poi spinner, who "got in trouble not for playing with fire but acting like a man."
Tedward moved to L.A. circa 2000 to take a job in computers, and by 2002, he'd founded the North American Fire Arts Association in hopes of standardizing legal regulations. He also had begun manufacturing custom burn tools and auditioning L.A. amateurs for the Fire Conclave, the inner spin circle at Burning Man.
At first, he auditioned at an unsanctioned, unregulated parking lot near Union Station on Alameda, which other artists used for practice. But when a security guard overseeing the lot listed "people with fire" as a potential liability on a report to an insurance provider, that jig was up.
Burn Club rose out of that shutdown, finding a home in Culver City partly because a retiring fire marshal, Richard Momii, felt altruistic enough to grant permits and partly because no residential neighborhood borders Culver City Park.
"There's a change in mentality," says Driskel, who became a member of the fire association's council about three years ago. Previous generations were more anarchic — and held fast to safety ideas based on folklore rather than science.
"When I got into fire-spinning, I knew I needed to be aware," Driskel says. "People get hurt that you know."
On Driskel's first night at Burn Club, a girl got tangled in her lit poi. Her spotter, trained by Tedward, smothered the flames with duvetyne cloth in one smooth motion. She relit, and kept spinning.
"People have two reactions to fire," says Cypris, the poi spinner from Seattle: They're either frightened or captivated.
"There's no in-between," Driskel agrees. "The first time you light up, it's a life-changing experience. You think, 'Oh my God. That was amazing. It was my own world for a minute.' "
At Burn Club's first meeting in February, members kept moving in and out of their own worlds. Ash, a traditionally trained Polynesian dancer, spun poi elegantly while Scott danced around her in a more free-form style.
Later, a 20-something guy asked Scott to spot. He lit one end of a midsize staff with wicks on both sides, then pulled his hair out of its ponytail and took off his glasses, handing them to Scott before lighting the staff's other end. Then he was gone, dancing for himself in some kind of trance.
By 11:45 that same night, when Burn Club had gone on for nearly four hours, it was time to pack up. "Last call!" Tedward announced.
"You have to treat it like a bar sometimes," he says.