There aren’t massive art installations, tents with sensory experiences, or an expansive desert-like scene called the Playa, but Chicago does have its own little piece of Burning Man. It takes place every few weeks during the warmer months though may not have heard of it.
Full Moon Jam, which kicked off its 11th season on June 2 and continues through October 27, gathers fire dancers, drum circles, flame throwers, artists, hippies, business people, and families along the lakefront south of Foster Beach in Uptown to honor the full moon as she rises high above Chicago. Some come out for the spirituality of the night. Some come to join the drum circle. Others simply come out for a show.
“One of the fun things about the Jam is it’s like that little magical moment,” said Full Moon Jam founder Liz Campanella, who also created the popular wintertime Chiditarod shopping cart race. “It’s like that hidden gem. It’s under the radar. It gives people the real magical experience of finding the diamond in the rough.”
And plenty of people come out to watch it sparkle. While organizers anticipated hundreds on June 2, later estimates put attendance closer to 2,000. People started arriving around 7 p.m. just after a local soccer league cleared the field. With the sun starting to lower in the west, people began to claim their spots with blankets. A drum circle gathered on the north end and continued to grow as more musicians—drummers, sax players, dancers—arrived and joined the ceremonial-like revelry.
The first fire dancers entered the Great Circle around 8:15 p.m. as dusk faded away and the crowd roared. Women danced acrobatically with flaming hula hoops. A guy dressed head-to-toe in tie-dye twirled a double-edged staff. Fire breathers dazzled as flames shot from their mouths and into the night sky.
Anyone is welcome to dance with fire in the Great Circle, a roped-off area for performers, as long as they undergo fire-safety training first because, well, fire can be dangerous.
“Fire spinning is a little scary at first when you light up for the first time,” said fire dancer Dawn Xiana Moon, who is the founder of fire- and belly-dancing cosplay group Raks Geek. “It’s not what you expect. The fire is hotter and it makes a lot more noise than you’d think. After that it becomes exhilarating because you’re playing with something dangerous.”
That’s possibly part of the reason why so many people come out to watch. You can take part in a cool spectacle where people dance with different flaming tools—poi (wicks on chains), fire hoops, fans, staffs, swords, loud-cracking fire-throwing whips—simply for the rush of performing in front of hundreds of people. With fire. “We’re putting on a show for everyone,” said fire performer Avi Chertok. “I love seeing everyone get into a huge circle. It creates a community bond.”
That community has exploded since Full Moon Jam started in 2004, when a group of 13 friends gathered for a birthday barbecue in the park with fire dancing. At the time, according to Campanella, Uptown was a hotbed of gang activity. So when the police saw something positive happening (from a group who made sure they cleaned up after themselves, no less) the cops said they should come out more often.
“The Park District at the time was going through a rough spot with unsavory behavior,” Campanella said. “The police thought it was something really positive. As the years have gone by, I think we’ve helped turn that area around a bit.”
Now, the free-to-attend Jam is open to anyone and everyone. And it’s not just urbanites. Southwest suburban resident Erika Genenko attended a Jam in 2014 and decided she wanted to return with her husband and small kids. “The kids both like music and this is their first time around so many people—and staying out so late,” she said, added that what drew her in was “the community, city life—it’s everything together.”
For many people, this was their first jam, but there were plenty of veterans in the crowd. Chad Wilson walked into the park after the fire dancing had started and said he was surprised to see how large the crowd was, but was happy with it.
“It feels like it’s one of those free, unique things Chicago has [but] it’s totally different from a free event in Millennium Park,” Wilson said. “I enjoy this sort of artistic expression with fire, drums, and glow sticks. It’s such an interesting mix of people.”
And that includes being an inclusive, family-friendly, homegrown entity that organizers put on for the love of it. “It’s an entirely exotic experience, but it’s also entirely comfortable,” said Mike LaHood, one of the volunteer organizers. “No one comes and feels like a tourist and that’s what makes it uniquely Chicago. We’re doing this thing that’s more on the edges of people’s expectations, but they arrive and feel right at home.”