On the first two nights of the 2012 competition, the Tiumalu brothers’ routines come just minutes apart, Rex taking the stage before VJ in both rounds. Every dancer has a different style — some are more fluid, some flashy, some fierce. Rex casts himself in that last mold: “You have to come out furious. It’s not a baton-twirling competition. It’s not a circus act. This is a Samoan warrior dance.” He launches into his act, his knife a blurred spinning circle of fire that he tosses seamlessly from hand to hand. “I try to dance like I’m fighting someone in battle,” he says. His dream is to one day become another Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and when he isn’t dancing, he’s training in his uncle’s wrestling school. “Performance is my passion,” Rex asserts.
VJ follows shortly after with a more muted and mesmerizing routine. He doesn’t leap or tumble; his dance is smooth and fast, with nothing forced or strained. Ambidextrous, VJ can spin two knives in opposite directions simultaneously, a feat no one else can match. “Rex puts more anger into his dance,” VJ says. “For me it just flows. Once I get my knife spinning, it’s like it won’t stop.”
It was that unique ability that set VJ apart in the competition in 2011 and won him the world title—and this year it sends him sailing into this competition’s final three. Rex, though, does not advance. Offstage the elder Tiumalu remains modest, moving and speaking with a languor that’s in direct contrast to the velocity with which he performs. “For me it isn’t just about winning,” VJ says. “I want people to learn about our culture, where we come from.”
One of the people the Tiumalu brothers have inspired is Preston Weber, who also hails from Florida. Just 13, Preston has won every fireknife dance competition he’s entered, and in 2012 he became the youngest dancer ever to win the PCC’s intermediate division, taking the title Rex won the year before. Preston is largely self-taught and was the only non-Polynesian in competition. “People tell me I’ve made the record books because I’m the first full Caucasian to ever win,” shrugs Preston the night after being crowned. Given that the dance is so deeply rooted in Samoan heritage, his win is no small feat. And both Rex and VJ, who occasionally mentor the young champ back in Florida, see this as a good thing.
“Preston is a perfect example of how fireknife dancing inspires many kids,” says VJ. “To have him represent our culture only makes it stronger.”