With light fading from the island day, I watched as my oldest daughter, afraid of putting her hand in a toaster oven to retrieve her English muffin at home, grabbed hold of two chains, each with flaming balls attached to the ends, and began to twirl them. A stray cat trotted by in the background and a gentle breeze ruffled her green, tropical dress as she spun these balls of fire on either side of her body.
Her fear of a small kitchen appliance was greater than that of actual flames, which were dangling by her side, her dress catching that breeze regularly, every few minutes. Her smile couldn’t have been bigger. And her trust in her current situation was immeasurable, supported by the encouraging instruction she was receiving from a man with only one of his arms through the sleeve of his yellow T-shirt, whom she had met just a half-hour earlier.
This is what happens when you’re around Phil Villatora, a Kauai native who opens his home to teach others Polynesian arts and culture as part of an immersive, freeing experience that inspires those who attend to twirl fire and take home a different perspective on life.
And that’s not an overstatement.
Villatora’s curriculum during his drum, flute and fire dancing classes consists of hands-on learning and animated storytelling, which draws people in, creating a connection that is almost difficult to comprehend. And he seems to do it unconsciously, without trying, by just being.
He connected with my 72-year-old dad just as effectively as he did to me and my boyfriend and our school-aged kids, albeit in uniquely personal ways, which is to say each of our experiences was different despite being in his presence at the same time. This was more than an AirBnB experience, which is how we stumbled upon Villatora.
This was a life experience.
Tourists visiting Kauai have opportunities to kayak down rivers at sunrise, snorkel in search of dolphins and turtles, hike to secret waterfalls and zipline over canopies of lush green trees. Each of those excursions are incredible ways to experience the island, but none of them immerse you — culturally — on a mental or emotional level.
None of them send you home with an intellectual souvenir that sticks, and begs you to consider life differently. An evening at Villatora’s home does that.
But first, you have to find it.
I remember hoping we were going the right way to get there, as I read directions aloud that involved markers like “over the big hill” and “the tall driveway on the left.” Looking back, it was one indicator of the type of person we were about to meet, a man who doesn’t sweat the small stuff and instead focuses on the big, pure picture.
We knew very little about what was ahead as our rental car climbed his driveway. We knew Villatora was a native to Kauai, who spent two years living in the jungle alone, by choice. We knew he was a performer at local luaus, and we knew he also offered classes that taught visitors how to find and construct an authentic flute only after each attendee sourced their own materials from the jungle themselves.
A tent in his driveway, covering equipment we would use later in the evening, seemed to indicate we were in the right spot. And when he emerged from his home, his head and one arm through a yellow T-shirt, I thought maybe we had interrupted him or come a little early. But that was as far as that shirt made it to being completely worn during our two-hour stay.
Within minutes, it seemed, Villatora had our oldest yelling her part of a chant (a solo) as she banged a drum and sent a beat around a circle that included our family of nine and one other family of three. He had us all concentrating on hitting our specific rhythms as he talked about his childhood, his love and respect for the garden island and the importance of curating a strong, supportive village — as demonstrated by the song we had learned to play together after just a few minutes.
And his enthusiasm overflowed. He wasn’t performing for tourists, he was introducing his guests to his way of life. We were in his family room. We left our shoes at the door. It’s difficult to find a more intimate way to understand, appreciate or empathize with a native culture.
The importance of that intimacy, though, can’t be understated as we set down our drumsticks and moved outdoors to spin fire. This man, who educated us about the natural bounty of the island and lamented about its commercialization, would hand us flaming chains and sticks that would numb everything in our worlds in that moment except our primal fear of the dangers of fire.
Fear. The entire exercise boiled down to a spirit of self reliance and fear. Understanding it. Controlling it. Learning how to work with it. And overcoming it.
Because, when he hands you that chain, it’s you and that flaming ball. You, holding that chain, are in control of the fire and the fear. And you have to learn, quickly, how to manage both.
In your head, you’re alone. But, in the moment, you’re an islander, part of a small community that formed or fortified around a circle of drums that is now watching you move, offering encouragement and celebrating every successful spin you make.
You’re Villatora’s protege, watching him spin a stick flaming from either end, and learning how to time your hand-off from him, knowing the more you hesitate in the face of this present danger, the more dangerous the experience is. To be fair, it’s actually not that dangerous. I would know. I wasn’t the best fire dancer, allowing my arms to flinch as I tried to cross the flaming chains in front of me, which meant I was letting fear interfere. And when the balls of fire would meet my dress or my leg, they’d startle me but do absolutely nothing.
Villatora explained why that was, but my brain was busy with a mild freak out. Not only was I about to grab those flaming chains, I was watching as all five of our kids, the oldest 13 and the youngest 6 at the time, eagerly waited for their chance to dance with fire.
We were the coolest parents of all time for those two hours, in their eyes at least.
It was only after driving down Villatora’s driveway, after watching our girls cross those flaming balls in front of their bodies and our boys successfully twirl that flaming stick, that the adrenaline subsided enough for us to realize what we had just experienced.
We had experienced a philosophy, an approach to life that would be invaluable moving forward. We had just harnessed fear and controlled danger, which means we tamed the lion, charmed the snake and climbed the mountain. We learned a way of life, and learned how to apply it to our own, even after leaving the island.
That’s not something you can buy. It’s something you open yourself up to. You can’t just find that in a souvenir shop. You find it by experiencing it.
And, it can only be found at Villatora’s home, over the hill, at the end of the tall driveway on the left.