Zozobra Fire Dancer’s role all about carrying the torch

September 1, 2018

For one night a year, Helene Luna becomes the spirit of fire.

As tens of thousands of people crowd into the Fort Marcy Ballpark to watch their gloom burn away with the torching of the 50-foot-tall Zozobra, Luna appears out of the darkness to spark his demise.

Clad in red with a headdress resembling flames, she prances around Zozobra’s skirts like a cat, taunting and coy. Twisting her body like the fire she embodies, she performs a ritual created 94 years ago, along with the massive marionette.

Luna, 53, a Santa Fe native who lives in Denver, has been the Zozobra Fire Dancer for more than a decade. She feeds off the night’s energy, she said, as she twirls her two torches, sidesteps fireworks and leaps through smoke.

When the fire takes hold and Zozobra bursts into flames, Luna sits down to watch. And as the event ends, she wipes away Fire Dancer markings from her face and walks away knowing that for 15 minutes, she was something beyond herself.

She is largely anonymous in the unpaid role. “No one knows it’s me,” she said.

Still, she revels in a sense of celebrity surrounding the performance.

“It just feels incredible,” Luna said. “You feel like a rock star for 10 seconds.”

As the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe prepares for the 2018 burning of Zozobra on Friday night — a tribute to the 1960s — Luna looks forward to continuing the tradition, one the professional dancer and actor has long loved.

“Everyone wants to be the Fiesta Queen — not me,” she said. “I wanted to be the Fire Dancer.”

On Friday, she said, Zozobra-goers should look out for a few special moves in her dance and a peace sign incorporated as part of a nod to the 1960s.

The nearly century-old dance was choreographed by Jacques Cartier, a former New York ballet dancer and Santa Fe’s first Fire Dancer. Cartier performed the role into the 1970s, when he passed it to one of his dance students, Chip Lilienthal, who later passed it on to his daughter, Katy Clopper.

Luna credits Cartier and Lilienthal for establishing the Fire Dance as far more than a kickoff to Zozobra’s burning. Instead, she said, it is a story told by movements. Over the decades, each dancer in the role has incorporated his or her own style that is passed down as part of the tradition. Luna hopes to one day leave a similar legacy.

Luna first started dancing in the Zozobra production in 1996. She donned the Fire Dancer’s demon-like costume in 2007 as a stand-in for Clopper, who was pregnant that year. When Clopper gave up the role shortly after, Luna became the official Fire Dancer.

“It’s an honor,” she said. “For me, that’s the new year.”

Luna, who now teaches ballet and works at a research and consulting firm in Denver, keeps up a rigorous routine ahead of the performance. She runs with weights at sunrise to prepare for carrying the two 8-pound torches.

“They feel like 50 pounds,” she joked, adding that her performance is only about 20 minutes but feels like two days.

She also takes ballet classes to maintain her form and watches her diet to ensure she is up to the job.

“No celebrating till after,” she said. “I can’t let Santa Fe down.”

Her passion for the Santa Fe tradition has swept her husband, Dirk Douglas, into the production as a hand backstage.

“I had to kind of ease into it,” said Douglas, a Colorado native who serves as Luna’s torch handler. He is in charge of soaking the torches and lighting them. The tricky part, he said, is handing the burning torches to Luna — he always makes sure the flames are facing him.

“If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is,” Luna said.

Neither has been burned, the pair said, knocking on wood.

On the day of the show, Douglas gets up at 4:30 a.m. to help load Zozobra. Luna stays in bed.

“Talent has to rest,” she said with a laugh.

Around 10 a.m., she goes to Fort Marcy to help with the last-minute details and get her first look at Zozobra. She and Douglas then make their annual trek to Tia Sophia’s restaurant downtown, where Luna eats her only meal before the show — huevos rancheros.

“I want to be lean and mean,” she said.

She tries to nap to conserve her energy.

The pair usually arrive at the Fort Marcy park by 5 p.m. Luna puts on her makeup and mingles with other volunteers for a while.

Around 7 p.m., as it begins to get dark, she heads to the old amphitheater near the ballpark for a couple of hours of seclusion to stretch, warm up and practice her performance one last time before taking her place near Zozobra.

Then, as Luna steps up, fully costumed, behind the marionette, she looks to her left and sees the rows of fireworks awaiting their launch. She watches a trio of people in yellow fire jackets and helmets maneuver the marionette’s arms, creating their own kind of dance as they tug the ropes.

She listens to the commands as organizers coordinate the torch bearers and other performers, like the little Gloomies.

Nervous energy fills Luna as she waits for the lights to go out, her cue to step on stage to portray the spirit of fire.

Luna, who still performs in theater shows, said Zozobra is a production unlike any other.

“I can’t tell you how cool it is” she said, “to hear 60,000 people cheering that [Zozobra] is going down.”

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