Just add fire: Destin resident makes a career out of dancing with flames

Jessica Coker
Great balls of fire – Ussery spins Poi over her head during a show.

Fourteen years ago, in Namibia, Africa, the free-spirited, slightly-dare-devilish Autumn Lyfe Ussery took a literal leap of faith and jumped from an airplane, landing in her future.

As the parachute carried her slowly back to the Earth, the Destin resident noticed, what she called, "fire balls" that appeared to be dancing all along the ground.

Once her feet were planted firmly on the dirt she realized what it was — a woman named Zelda Luarens who was "spinning fire," which is often referred to as Poi.

Ussery immediately fell in love with Poi and began taking lessons with Luarens. Now she is a regular at many events around Destin, including HarborWalk Mardi Gras parades and the recent Destin Christmas Tree Lighting and Boat Parade.

"A lot of the kids who watch me perform come up to me afterward and ask me if I'm a ninja with marshmallows," Ussery said laughingly. She said she didn't understand it at first but then she realized it, "it does kind of look like I'm spinning flaming marshmallows."

Originating in New Zealand many years ago to increase strength and flexibility, "Poi" is the Maori word for ball on a cord.

Beginners usually start with something as simple as knee socks with tennis balls inside, eventually moving on to chains and leather Kevlar dipped in various oils so the ends will burn.

"I'm so lucky and so fortunate to be able to do this, it really doesn’t feel like a job," said Ussery of her slightly unconventional 9 to 5 job of fire twirling.

While living on and off in Africa, Ussery spent the next 12 years learning her new craft. Along the way, she got married, had a daughter and started doing Poi at a family-owned restaurant in Namibia.

"Africa has my heart," Ussery said, "but the schools aren't up to par, they are much better here."

So Ussery and her new family packed up and moved to the states, back to the Emerald Coast where she spent so many summers as a lifeguard on the beaches of Destin.

She has been performing for about two years on the Emerald Coast, and teaching Poi to the community is one of her favorite things to do, because it's such a therapeutic and soulful activity. But finding students isn't always easy.

Ussery told The Log that there are so few people who continue with their Poi lessons, usually because of injuries.

"Maybe 10 percent of people will come back after they hit themselves — it's not the fire that hurts, it's the impact of the ball hitting you in the face, head, wherever."

"Children make the best students because they have no fear," Ussery said, adding that it's good because they want to learn, but it's also dangerous because they don’t know their limits.

Ussery said she needs to be in the right frame of mind when doing Poi, so she needs her specific music that she calls up-tempo, gypsy music.

"It's not funny when you're dancing with fire to Sesame Street," Ussery said.

Not only does she offer lessons but she performs at weddings and birthday parties.

"My family is my biggest fans," said Ussery, who also spins at her daughter and twin sons’ school at Destin Elementary when they call upon her.

To learn more about the art of Poi and Ussery go to