Passing the torch - A conversation with multi-disciplinary artist Sean Thomas
Burnell “Acku” Thomas, M.S. was a man of many talents. The Linden native sang calypso, painted signs, worked at the Guyana Graphic in the 70s and was the first person to set up the diesel-operated German offset printer acquired by the newspaper company. He was a gifted drummer, actor and performer who specialized in fire dancing. In fact, he was the event coordinator responsible for activating the culture in his hometown. It was through his efforts that Palm Tree Cinema in Wismar, Linden was established as a place where residents could meet to support each other’s talents. When the crowd got too big for the cinema the show was moved to the McKenzie Sports Club and became an annual Christmas production “No Big Ting.”
Sean Thomas’ father, without a doubt, served his community (and country by extension) in many capacities. It was this same spirit of productivity that young Thomas would inherit and later apply to every facet of his own life. Although he admittedly shied away from participating in his father’s performances due to childhood bullying and wild speculations, he eventually warmed up to the idea of carrying on his father’s tradition by adding his own unique trademark to the family legacy.
Thomas recalled an interesting story of how he came into fire dancing one night just hours before his father was scheduled to perform at an event.
“He was just busy that day and had endless work to do. Then he started saying ‘What am I gonna do tonight? I can’t even get any help. Nobody ain’t helping to wrap the fire stick or anything at all,’ Thomas recalled.
“It was just getting to his head. He was just knocking the wall as he passed by. So I said, ‘You want me to do the fire dance?’ He said ‘Boy what nonsense you telling me!’ So I told him that I could try and then he kinda softened because he knew that I never asked him for anything. Every time he asked if I needed something I would always say no.”
At that point, the elder Thomas agreed, but not before a lesson of how it is done: “Okay but first you gotta know how to blow the fire, how to keep the kerosene in your mouth and you gotta know how to wrap the stick.”
That was followed by the exhortation: “Show me’.”
After some hesitation his father finally agreed to teach him everything he needed to know for a successful, but more importantly, safe performance. Thomas learned how to keep the kerosene oil in his mouth without swallowing; the different ways to spit out the oil to create the desired effect; how to wrap the sticks with the right fabric; and all the additional tools he would need to get the job done.
And so after impressing his father with two brief demonstrations at their home that night, Thomas’ journey into fire dancing began. He managed an even more impressive performance at the show later that night by incorporating back flips into his fire dancing routine. He recalls his father was not too happy about the spontaneous addition to the programme.
When he came off the stage, there was a stern warning: “Don’t you ever do that. Let me know you’re going to do it first.”
In addition to the obvious risks with the fire and swallowing the kerosene oil, his father told him that sometimes he had experiences with the stage not being properly built and he could risk his life by jumping and falling through due to poor construction.
Regardless of his disapproval of the back flips, Thomas spoke of the pride he heard in his father’s voice when he overheard him boasting about his performance with the other members of the group.
“I was washing out my mouth when I heard him and the boys saying ‘Your son looked good man’ and he said ‘Yeah, he’s my backbone.’”
Since his debut performance that night, Thomas explained that he has been trying to keep his performances as lively possible in order to hold the crowd’s attention. He has done extensive experimentation including lighting cotton balls on fire, juggling them and putting them out in his mouth. In some cases he also replaced the fire sticks with spears. He would light them on fire and use them to create different shapes as they spun in the air. His son even introduced him to using hand sanitizer as an alternative to create different effects with the fire.
However, as fun and exciting as it can be, Thomas explained that fire dancing is not without its risks. There are serious health hazards associated with this type of performance, particularly the risk for cancer in the mouth and other ailments linked to the accidental ingestion of kerosene oil.
At first Thomas used malt beverages to help in the event that he accidentally swallowed the kerosene oil but this remedy soon became ineffective. Someone then told him about using alcohol as a replacement. But since he was intolerant, this was not a practical option. Eventually he experimented with using milk and after a successful trial he continued to drink it before and after his performances.
During his own research and experimentation, he also learned that blowing cornstarch on the stick to ignite the flame was a much safer alternative to kerosene oil. However, the same effect could not be achieved simply because most outdoor venues in Guyana are usually very windy and the cornstarch would be blowing everywhere before he got the chance to ignite it. And much to the annoyance of the audience, depending on how close they were to the stage, the cornstarch particles would rain down on them creating a mess.
Thomas explained that although most organizers usually expressed shock at the suggestion of an indoor fire dancing event, he has performed his routines at places like the National Cultural Center, without any accidents. In some cases, through the insistence of the organizers, there were fire trucks present as a safety precaution. However, he has never had to use them. Thomas would always do site visits beforehand so that he knew exactly which direction to blow the fire and which techniques would be most effective in each situation.
“I learned a lot of things through fire dancing and now I’m using them as teaching aids for my students. I tell them there is so much they can do but they’re not putting their minds to it. Start questioning yourself and then you will realize what you can do. That’s how you learn things.”
Thomas is open to passing on the gifts his father gave to him. In fact, quite a few of his younger siblings are also talented drummers, although they are no longer actively drumming. And while he is the only one in his family that is carrying on his father’s tradition of fire dancing, he has noticed that his youngest son has shown some interest in perhaps one day continuing the family’s legacy.
Thomas was a member of the Guyana National Service (GNS). He enrolled at the E.R. Burrowes School of Art through the encouragement of GNS and graduated from the school in 1995 with credits in Graphic Design, Textile Design and Ceramics. In 1994 his proposed design for the face of Guyana’s one dollar coin was chosen by the Bank of Guyana. He was employed at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport before moving over to the art school. He has been the Graphic Design tutor there since 2000 and has been designing costumes and floats for the Ministry of Culture, through the art school. Thomas is a sign language expert and interprets for hearing-impaired individuals.
This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on June 5, 2016. Click on the link to be redirected to their website: