This entry aims to give helpful advice to beginners and experienced practitioners of the most impressive of the juggling arts, fire breathing. Although simple to learn, this pursuit is fraught with potential danger. These dangers can be minimised however, and it is perfectly possible to fire breathe on a fairly regular basis without suffering undue damage to one's health.
The safest way to breathe fire is to project a cloud of paraffin1 vapour from your mouth over a source of ignition of some description. The only suitable fuel to use is paraffin, as it is by far the safest. Paraffin has a high flash point2, which means at room temperature it will not burn as a liquid. This is extremely beneficial to budding fire breathers, as it means the only way to make the paraffin catch fire is to vaporise it by blowing it past your pursed lips, and if you have mastered the technique enough that the droplets of paraffin are flammable, then you have also learnt enough to project the vapour cloud as far from your face as possible.
On the other hand, never ever try to breathe fire with petrol3. To do so is to dice with death, as petrol is extremely volatile, and has an extremely low flash point of about −40°C. Any attempts to put a mouthful of petrol into your mouth and then projecting it over a source of ignition is likely to lead at the very least to severe external and internal injury, and possibly death.
The best source of ignition is a flaming juggling torch. These consist of a Kevlar wick attached to a handle, which also burn paraffin as a fuel, and can be bought or made at home.
Paraffin can be bought in gallon containers for about £5, and should be decanted as needed into two containers. The first is used to soak the torches, and can be easily constructed by cutting a large plastic drinks bottle or milk carton in half. The second will be used to take paraffin into your mouth. Cycle bottles are particularly good for this as the valve makes it easier to avoid spilling paraffin everywhere. Many mineral waters are now also marketed with bottles with similar caps which make excellent cheap alternatives.
There are various different paraffins available on the world market, and choosing the least harmful is recommended. EC citizens can rest assured, safe in the knowledge that there are now strict guidelines about the purity of commercial paraffin. When introduced to the UK in 1998, all the old standards by which fire breathers used to judge paraffin were nullified, which is probably just as well, as they were basically founded upon taste alone. Luckily the most dangerously impure paraffin, which was an interesting electric blue colour, was far and away the most disgusting variety to taste. Pink paraffin tasted relatively nice4, and was the paraffin of choice for true connoisseurs, who were still wrong about it being the least dangerous - pure paraffin is clear, so coloured paraffin is impure, and the impurities tend to be nasty chemicals you really do not want to be absorbing into your blood stream.
So paraffin which is clear is purer than coloured paraffin, although just because paraffin is clear does not mean it is pure. The best thing to do is read the label clearly and if still in doubt, ask the retailer.
An area of the great outdoors which is clear away from anything remotely flammable.
A reliable wind is strongly recommended for beginners. It does not matter if the wind is strong or non-existent, as long as it is constant. Blustery wind which changes direction every ten seconds makes things just a bit too exciting.
Clothes made out of synthetic materials are not recommended, as in general they are more flammable than natural materials like cotton. Do not wear a shell suit while fire breathing. They are out of fashion, highly flammable, and shrink onto your skin and stick to it while burning.
Sobriety, although technically only optional, is strongly recommended throughout a fire breathing session. If you feel you need a bit of Dutch courage to overcome your fear of the flames then you are not ready to be fire breathing and should seek further instruction from a more experienced fire breathing practitioner.
Alcohol induces recklessness, impairs reaction times, and reduces muscle control. To breathe fire safely requires care, awareness, good timing, and good control of your breathing and lips.
Learning How to Breathe Fire
Never try to breathe fire for the first time without the benefit of the teaching, guidance, and supervision of someone who knows how to do it properly already.
Teaching People How to Breathe Fire
The blind should not lead the blind. If you do not feel confident enough in your ability as a fire breather to demonstrate to a beginner how to breathe fire, then do not try to teach people.
The Edinburgh University Juggling Society has successfully taught large numbers of people5 how to breathe fire, and so far - touch wood - no one has been seriously hurt. After several years of teaching this simple skill, a teaching session runs like this:
Starting with water, beginners are shown how to purse their lips together like they are playing a trumpet, and force a cloud of water vapour out of their mouths. Important learning points to make here are:
Never take more liquid into your mouth than you feel comfortable holding in your mouth without risk of swallowing.
Never blow into the wind.
Never blow in the direction of other people.
The worst that can happen with water when they break these rules is that they will feel less thirsty, get wet, or get someone else wet, but once they move onto paraffin, it gets serious.
As if the foul taste of paraffin is not bad enough, if you do swallow some, it will give you terrible diarrhoea for up to about three days. Warn beginners of this risk, and never forget the old adage; spit, don't swallow.
Once your student is projecting a fine spray of mist, torch acclimatisation is the next step. Those who have never held a fire torch before may be nervous of the flame, so it is a good idea to give them a single torch to hold and swing and generally play around with for the duration of the torches burn. One thing worth mentioning to burning torch virgins is to always remember the flame burns upwards, and as such should always be held above the fire torch itself when the torch is stationary. This acclimatisation gives teachers the perfect opportunity to explain the motion of the hand holding the fire torch while fire breathing is being attempted:
The torch should be initially held about 6 inches (15 centimetres) from the face.
As they start to breathe out and the humble beginnings of a fire ball take shape, the torch should be brought further away from the face and then down to the side, safely away from the flame.
It can be a good idea now for students to go back to blowing water through their lips, but this time blowing past a representation of a fire torch such as a big stick, in order that they may perfect the timing of the whole manoeuvre.
Some people learn a lot faster than others, some never manage to project a cloud of vapour, but most people seem to take about 20 minutes maximum to get this far. The next step is of course the student's first ever fire breath. A momentous occasion for student and teacher alike, this moment should not be rushed, no pressure should be laid onto the student to do it, and these final reminders should always be observed:
Always start off with a small amount of paraffin - huge flames can wait a while longer.
Spit, do not swallow.
Stop laughing before you take a sip of paraffin.
Never blow into the wind.
Never blow in the direction of other people.
Its easy, you've done it with water, this is fun, good luck.
A student's first ever fire breath will not necessarily be massively impressive, however it is an area that those who like it can improve in very quickly. The biggest aim to strive for is flame efficiency - the majority of beginners waste a large amount of paraffin by failing to vaporise all of it before it leaves the mouth, and mis-timing the removal of the torch from the path of the flame. A professional will waste nothing, and is therefore able to project several massive flames from just one mouthful of paraffin.
Fire breathing and facial hair which you are proud of do not mix well - beards, moustaches, eyebrows, and more alarmingly eye lashes are all at risk from a sudden change in wind direction. The smell of burning hair is actually less unpleasant than the appearance of the short spiky remnants of a freshly burnt beard.
Less attractive still are the inevitable burps that follow a few hours after a fire breathing session. The burps are perfectly normal, remind you just how terrible paraffin tastes, and reduce the amount of paraffin left in your body, so do not hold them in. The more experienced you become the less you will find yourself burping, as they burps are caused by liquid paraffin being warmed up in your stomach and becoming gas, so the less paraffin you swallow, the less you will burp.
Fire breathing is very impressive, but if it is a member of the opposite sex that you are trying to impress, a spare T-shirt is strongly recommended - your top will get splashed with paraffin, and will stink terribly until it has been thoroughly washed. The amount of paraffin a T-shirt can store is considerably greater than the amount you should be swallowing, so the extent to which you smell revolting can be effectively minimised by putting a clean top on. Alternatively, retire to a horrendously smokey pub and seek refuge in the general stench of nicotine and beer.
Health and Safety
Short Term Risks
As mentioned above, paraffin is not digestible, and swallowing causes terrible diarrhoea. Although your digestive system can not break it down, it can be absorbed straight into your blood stream. At least, this is liable to make you ill for a while. One way to decrease the amount of paraffin that is absorbed is to drink full fat milk just before fire breathing. This then coats your mouth and throat somewhat, and inhibits the absorption of paraffin as it is being absorbed itself.
Long Term Risks
If you breathe fire often, no matter how careful you are not to swallow, and no matter how much milk you drink before hand, you run the risk of getting seriously ill.
Despite the low volatility of paraffin, you are guaranteed to inhale some paraffin every time you breathe fire. To minimise this, always breathe in before taking paraffin into your mouth rather than after. Damage to you lungs is the price over-inhalers might have to pay: pneumonia and pleurisy are the potential killers to be avoided here.
It Sounds Incredibly Dangerous, Why Do it at all?
Most jugglers and street entertainers are agreed, rightly or wrongly, that if you do not breathe too often for too long, and always take as much care as possible, you are unlikely to get ill. Unlikely events do happen, but fire breathing is altogether too impressive, and indeed too exhilarating, to be discarded just for health reasons. Limit yourselves to breathing only on special occasions and have good, safe fun.
Fun with Flames
As your skill at fire breathing increases, so does your natural cocky belief that you are indestructible. Sadly this is not true, and the more adventurous you get, the more likely it is you will attempt things which are completely stupid. Five people breathing fire at the same time is all very well, but using just one torch means the poor jerk in the middle holding it is going to feel a lot of heat. Caution is your friend.