An old Tidy Cats container sits on the floor in front of the full-length mirrors. It’s no longer filled with what’s advertised but rather with a combination of chalk and rosin. Feeling the sweat slick return to my hands in our steamy studio, I march over to the container and lather my hands with the chalk-rosin mixture, then back over to the trapeze.
I ponder it a moment before leaping up to grab it. It reminds me of playing on the monkey bars as a kid. I was terrible at it. By comparison, my best childhood friend’s nickname was Monkey Girl. She had no issue pulling her body over the small trapeze swing on her playlet or climbing the giant magnolia in her front yard. Me, I was scared of heights and had the upper body strength of a chicken. I was no daredevil, unlike Monkey Girl, who seemed to be fearless.
Those were times past. Hanging from the trapeze, I engage my shoulders and contract my abs to bring my feet toward my face. Time for beats. I swing back and forth, toes passing between my hands on the bar, then pointing behind me as I temporarily become weightless. It’s my favorite part of this exercise.
Three and a half years ago, I fell in love with circus. I had worked out maybe five times over the previous decade and, despite appearing fit (read: skinny), I had no endurance. I had strong legs thanks to good genes, something that served me well when lifting things, but I felt an increasing need to be stronger. I loved dance and had been studying it off and on for years, but my clumsiness got in the way of the effortless look I wanted. So when I first saw a friend dancing in the air, I wondered if it would be a solution to my feet problem.
The initial hurdles seemed insurmountable. I couldn’t lift myself, my hands hurt from grabbing steel bars, I got hopelessly tangled in the silks, and I definitely couldn’t invert my body. And yet, I was hooked.
On my first visit to the studio that would become my second home and workplace over the next few years, I met with the director, Corey, to talk about potential collaboration on theatrical productions. Although I was there with my producer hat on, I remember eyeing the apparatuses and wondering what it was all like. They were installing the poles, which were terrifyingly tall to me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would eventually climb them.
Around the same time, I walked into the costume shop where I worked and discovered my coworker squeezing into leggings in the changing area. “I’m going to silks class and you have to wear super tight clothing or you get tangled up,” she laughed. It’s true. Eventually, I got so used to wearing leggings that I became one of those people who wears workout clothing all the time. Hey, it’s comfortable.
My first performance on the lyra, also called the aerial hoop, was at a vaguely hippie music festival, where aromas of patchouli and marijuana filled the air and fairy lights speckled the lawn. I nervously approached the hoop, the crash mat feeling way too squishy under my feet, grabbed the steel bar, and began my spin. I messed up my first trick, but after that, felt completely comfortable, even blissful, on the hoop. Although I didn’t make enough eye contact with the crowd, it was an incredible experience, to be up there in a magical world that I’d woven.
As I grew more confident in performing, my fear faded. I let the back of my mind, my reptilian brain, do the risk calculation and make a backup plan. It worked. During one performance on an exceptionally hot day, my hand slipped. My backup plan kicked in and I hooked my elbow to stop my fall. I struck a pose and the audience was none the wiser. When performing, think like a cat — something goes wrong, shake it off, arch your back, and say, “I meant to do that!”
Part of my desire to be stronger was because I was still reeling from an abusive relationship I’d just escaped. Although he famously never hit me (and made sure not to so that I would have no evidence if I went to the police, he told me), I felt battered inside and out. My entire body was exhausted from constantly fearing for my safety, having to navigate treacherous day after day with him. I felt ugly, weak, and not secure in my body. Circus empowered me to reconnect with my body and learn to love it like I never had before. Rather than feeling like I was drawing every day, I felt like I was flying everyday.
All the same, circus involves a lot of pain and grossness, although I’d take that sort of pain over partner abuse any day. You sweat a lot, especially in Florida, and your skin rips and bruises. You get what’s called “hand rips” if you don’t take care of your hands, and they look like stigmata. You get weird looks and concerned questions about whether everything is okay at home (which was ironic, given my ex-abuser who avoided punching me) as you try to hide your bruises with long sleeves and makeup. I remember posting a picture on Instagram of my legs, which were smattered with small bruises, and feeling disgusted. A stranger, a fellow traveler on a circus journey, commented and called them “circus kisses.” From then on, I started to appreciate the aches, pains, and bruises that were necessary to my growth. The increasing intensity of my circus training had a corresponding effect in my feeling of connectedness to my own body. I started to listen to my breath, to tap into my primal needs.
As someone with a knack for teaching, I itched to share my knowledge with people, to inspire new fellow travelers on the circus journey. I spent a lot of time reading books about the art form, its history, the muscles involved, and so on. I created a massive dictionary of aerial maneuvers and tricks. The first time I taught a full class of students, I was elated as I saw it click for them, as they learned to climb, as they mastered their first trick.
In circus, you learn humility, patience, and you learn to appreciate small victories. You learn to accept the inevitable plateau for love of the incredible feeling you get when you finally nail that trick you’ve been working on for months…or even years. It’s a long game but one in which the prize is your own self-discovery and membership in a centuries-old art form with performers around the world.
It really is the greatest show on Earth.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.
All photos by Mindy Miller unless otherwise identified.