BUSHWICK — Growing up with a welder dad who'd set plastic bottles ablaze, Tara McManus always had a fondness for flames.
"He taught me to weld when I was 13, which is part of why I'm not scared of fire. He'd put a helmet on me and I'd watch the sparks," said McManus, 31. Her pyrophilia reached a new level when her dad came home amazed after witnessing his first fire sideshow.
"One of the performers made a speech and said the reason they do these things that seem impossible is to prove to the general public they're capable of doing anything. Nothing is impossible," recalled McManus, who started fire eating in 2007 and now teaches others to do the same.
Calling fire eating a "very safe skill," McManus teaches novices the art of fire eating from the back of her fire-arts-themed Bushwick building, the "Floasis" — a live-work community off the Dekalb L train station where many artists are involved in fire performance.
She begins with a 30-minute fire safety training, and then launches into demonstrations by sticking a torch in her mouth.
"By the time you're finished practicing it feels like you just drank a hot cup of coffee," McManus told a student in a recent class, while holding the torch in one hand. "Leave the wick in your mouth three seconds, which is about one more second than feels safe."
"Let's light up!" she urged, swooping a lit stick up and between her open lips, which closed around it and extinguished the flame through a combination of saliva and a sudden deprivation of flame-feeding oxygen.
"I'm a little nervous," student Jaime Foley, 23, admitted before her first attempt. "I've been really interested in fire eating for a while but I didn't know where to go to find a community...and then the other weekend I came here."
But within an hour in her classes, McManus' students fearlessly gobble up the flames.
"When you psych yourself up and finally get past that fear factor, it's gone. And once you’ve gotten the trick you'll get it again," said McManus — who also dances with fire and has a fireproof apparel line called 3rd Earth Fireproof.
"I had a guy in my last class who got it in a half-hour...I just looked out of the corner of my eye and he'd done it."
Student Daniel Morgan — who had been petrified at the start of class — confessed to McManus afterwards that the practice symbolized a victory in his own psychological struggles.
"I'm afraid of a lot of things. Sometimes it is a fear of living in general that makes it hard to get out of bed. But I'm winning this battle one bright flame at a time," he wrote on Facebook. "If you can eat fire you can live life. Saturday I took a breath of life, took a bite of the sun, and exhaled my pain."
McManus said Morgan's testimony was just the kind of feedback she often receives from first-timers.
"Almost every time the student gets teary-eyed and tells me something about themselves," she said. "I've had clients who've said they had a destructive lifestyle in the past and that they wanted to control their destructive side and commune with it. It's really touching getting to hear people's stories."
McManus said she also taught fire eating to her boyfriend, who learned the skill in "a fraction of the time" that she did.
"My boyfriend is a smoker and it helps because you learn breath control with your cheeks, not your lungs," she said. "If you can blow smoke rings you can be a good fire eater."
As a board member of the North American Fire Arts Association, she said "people see [her] as a really safe person to learn from."
McManus said she sees the element as an "essential" part of life.
"Fire is what sustains life for human beings," she said. "We wouldn’t have evolved to be what we are today without fire."