I felt completely confident the night my new act flopped. A fellow performer remarked as much in the dressing room, and I had the audacity, now hilarious in retrospect, to say, “I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Humility replied, “remember me?”
It’s true. I have been a circus performer for just shy of a decade. I have performed for 25 drunk people in bars, for swarms of kids who want my autograph afterwards, and for thousands of athletes at international sporting events. I have performed on theater stages, in intimate black box theaters, schlepped aerial rigs onto beaches, done back-to-back, rainy shows at the county fair. I have performed in uneven grassy knolls at the public library, and in filthy warehouses where I dare not take off my shoes.
Experience feeds confidence, at least it has for me. I am at the point in my circus career where I take a couple deep breaths backstage and offer up what I’ve got, which is high level acrobatic training and character work developed from scratch.
Though it wasn’t always the case, I generally feel at home onstage, able to charm even the toughest audience. Not this night.
The performance opportunity itself was ideal—an out-of-town show that offered the chance to try out new material with a friendly crowd. The audience offered raucous laughter for the clowns, gasps of amazement at the absurdity of a tricky juggling act, and an appropriate level of reverence for the violin contortionist and gold-clad aerialist. The performers chatted casually backstage, celebrating a cruise contract and encouraging the first-timers to take a couple deep breaths. The producer was chill as one can be.
None of this stopped the shame monster of failure, that reminder that we’re human. How humiliating to be flawed at what you love to do.
“Humiliating? Really?” a friend who saw the event said afterwards, as she attempted to interrupt my descent into the approaching shame spiral.
Yes. Humiliating. That feeling of having planned out every cue, missed one, and gone down a pathway you couldn’t return from. That feeling of having to improvise the second half of your well-crafted act, out of time and off cue.
I’m supposed to wrap this post up in a lesson—I recognize that. It’s the responsibility of a writer, just like it is the responsibility of a performer, to not leave the audience feeling disappointed or disconnected.
I was trained in gymnastics, where when you fail, you drill until you don’t fail. This requires taking your gaze internal and removing any barriers, in your mind or body, to doing what is required exactly right. Failure looks, for example, like my five year old self doing back handsprings onto my head until I had enough self-protective instinct to not fail, to keep my arms straight. Not failing looks like Kerri Strug competing a team gold winning vault while seriously injured and becoming an American hero.
In sport, failure is seen to be something that lives within the gymnast, which can be exorcised with enough practice. Shame is what happens when we internalize our failures because we’ve been taught, and we believe, that they represent something bad about us.
This particular failure stung because there seemed to be no logical reason for it.
I’d practiced the act so many times. I’d signed up for the show months ahead and had done many things in my power to prepare: took time to rest when a bad illness derailed my training for a couple weeks, got a good night’s sleep, abstained from coffee for fear of being too jittery. I had performed this act well in front of a live audience several weeks prior; and this particular night, I failed well.
That, my friends, is the nature of live performance.
I can’t say I am grateful my act went badly mid-way, and I went still, quiet and internal, to try and figure a way out of the path I’d gone down. I can say I’m grateful for the chance to fail well, to feel that distant sting I remember—the sting of knowing I have not done my best. Because in art, failure is seen as experience, proof that we were brave enough to experiment.
When I was a little kid, I would do flips on the playground, but only with significant encouragement from my friends. I had learned early-on, from people outside my immediate circle, that shining was alright, but only if you're not too bright. That brightness would breed jealousy in other girls.
I was a tender-hearted kid. I am a tender-hearted grown up, sensitive to emotional dynamics, aware of including people and being included. I have often thought it sends the wrong message when girls are taught to push away what we admire. What if we were taught to risk expressing mutual admiration, to share the starlight?
A good portion of my early circus career was spent trying to fit in, trying to be "good enough" to be liked by the people I looked up to. What if we had known then that birds fly in formation to share their power?
My new act on static cloud imagines an alternate ending to the mystery disappearance of the famous aviator, Amelia Earhart. She is a famous lost-in-the-clouds flying woman whose bravery and passion I admire. In this act, I float and spin in the air with grace and confidence. Come experience the beauty of flight. You may even catch the desire to fly within yourself.
Two-high, a movement with two people stacked, one atop another, heads toward the sky. A base and a flyer. I am the flyer, spry and compact for my height, which is 5’1/2″. The flyer’s job is to listen to the base’s questions and answer them.
The flyer’s job is to listen for the base’s movements and respond calmly. To trust the base enough to give over your balance to her and the air. The flyer’s job is to be willing to let go of the need to be in charge.
I like this job – scaling my friend’s thigh or calf to their shoulders, being up high, listening for the call. In an acrobatic sense, I like flying, knowing where I am in space, finding a safe place to land.
This is exactly the way I approach friendships anyhow, like a childhood trust fall. Either you’re a person I can trust to be there, or you’re not.
Two-high needs both a base and a flyer to work. Neither person is in charge of the situation, not really. An experienced flyer will speak up when they know what’s going right or wrong.
Being a flyer is, in a lot of ways, like being a femme. A perspective depending on our willingness to accept our grace and our human-ness, a perspective requiring us to accept vulnerability as a form of fierce strength and defiance.
Acrobatics are a poetics of the body. We repeat the movements until they are memories. Some moves live in our bodies naturally. Some moves we have to let go of – they’re not for us. Other moves we have to work at diligently, the way you work at something you love.
Fortuna and I have started training together regularly again, now that the full-time program at Aloft is wrapping up.
Having our coach Char there makes the learning process a lot easier. She spots us and makes sure we play at our level. She watches our form and gets us to quickly recognize our patterns.
Char gives us life sustaining instruction in two or three-word commands – “High knee!” “Drop your heels!” I relish the feedback because it is so hard to see yourself. Just like I tell my students, feedback is a gift.
She has us do two-high approximately a hundred times before I get to flip off Fortuna’s shoulders onto a crash mat as a reward.
In two-high, Fortuna keeps her arms strong and even. She is a tiny powerhouse, fiercely determined. To make this work, I need to step up to her thigh crease and swiftly raise my knee to stand up in one, smooth, steady motion.
The acrobat in me is delighted by these details, by the process. Flying puts me deeply in my body, where I know what is possible. It makes me feel like we’re limitless.
Fortuna pushes artistry and ideas. She won’t give in because we both know this work is valuable beyond what we can physically accomplish. Acrobatics are a vehicle for our stories. Acrobatics are a poetics of figuring things out.
Who says we’re too small? Who says we’re too much? Or too old? Who says a woman’s worth depends only on her beauty, or her body, or her willingness? I’d like them to behold this glorious duo.
Monday through Saturday, I am on the floor, often clinging precariously to some contorted limb. The location of my practice varies, but the subject is the same: learn to be present in this body because it’s mine.
This week, practice went like this, on my living room floor:
Practice is how we learn. Here’s what I like. Here’s what I don’t like. Here’s what I need. Turns out, I like to look at the back of my calves, let the rest of the world lose focus for awhile. I need intense, but calm partnerships. I need trust and time. I like to take the time to get warm enough to slide smoothly into surprising places when I play.
My body needs to bend. I know this from time spent practicing in my particular body. If I don’t practice, I get grouchy and stiff.
The writer Kiese Laymon wrote an essay to this effect on practice recently, which I loved and my writing students found direct and true, “We’re not good enough to not practice.”
“You might want to read everything with an eye for ‘How in the fuck did they do that?’” Laymon writes, on why writers need to read.
There is a perception about the arts—writing and circus included—that some people are born gifted with extraordinary talent, a kind of magic that naturally knows how to make art that is both beautiful and impactful.
Being an acrobat, like being a writer, or being any other kind of artist for that matter, is not magic. It’s a practice.
I want to be careful here. It’s not: if people just practice, we will all reach the same imagined goal. I’m not talking about able-ness. I’m talking about finding a practice, about paying attention to craft.
I’m such a nerd for talk about craft. Because practice is magic. So are accountability partners and teachers. They reveal the pleasures of playing with others, or observing someone way more experienced.
I’ve been training contortion intensively for about 4 months, since Fortuna has been away. We were reunited at last in December, when I went to visit Chicago and take some private lessons at Aloft.
Practice is a process of unfurling. The way to re-write a body’s scripts can be to practice different patterns of movement. It’s emotionally hard to be apart after being together. I am learning to be open to new ways of moving, new spaces, relationships, experiences, teachers.
In Oyunchimeg Yadamjav’s (Oyuna's) Friday night Contortion class, we started warming up in the smaller space, padded with tumbling floor: 20 push-ups/20 roll jumps/20 handstands. By the end of warm-up, I was toasty.
We moved to the larger room to spread out. In the next hour + we kicked at least 1,000 kicks in all directions. We stacked our limbs on impossibly high mats. We uncomfortably embraced the wall in ways I will not soon forget.
In practice, or deep play, the moment narrows and what matters is the impulse to leave the uncomfortable place or to stay.
At one point, I looked over and Oyuna was sitting on Secret Bender, my traveling companion to Chicago, my enthusiastic student/teacher, and a secret, lifelong contortionist.
As we finished up the class, I got to watch Fortuna stand up from bridge, her goal since childhood. “Do it like her,” Oyuna pointed to Fortuna, and I smiled, knowing her story.
Duo trapeze with Char Numrych was rapid-fire dynamics. I kept messing up this ½ flip and it felt so good to land in a pile of mats laughing beneath Fortuna again.
“Thank your base!” Char said, so I did, clasping her sweaty, upside-down face in my hands.
Neighbor to The Ann Arbor Aviary, the circus school where Fortuna and I train together and work, is a traditional gym. Through the walls, you can hear the familiar clang and clank of barbells being hoisted and dropped, the particular grunts of people working hard.
People who love to work out talk about how it makes their bodies feel—the exquisite focus, the burst of adrenaline, the sore muscles, the ritual of it, the euphoria. I appreciate physical exercise for all of these reasons, for the energy it gives me, and for the stress relief.
There is fascination in growing ever stronger as you learn new skills. There is satisfaction in setting a goal and reaching it. There is power in learning body awareness and technique.
Closer and closer my feet creep towards the ground. On bendy days, I can see my toes and the balls of my feet. I wriggle them and grin. Some days, I forgive my body for its weaknesses and imbalances. Other days, that’s hard.
If you’ve ever done any kind of body work, you may know the feeling: this is farther than I’ve ever gone before. Will it ever be enough?
I want to feel what it feels like to touch down
I want to feel buoyant there. I want it so bad, to be skilled. The fact that I care so much about “getting” chest stand bears addressing. What is there to get? I am doing chest stand, but am not done with it.
Some days, I obsess about relaxing, and the relative length of hip flexors, torsos, and legs.
Others, I truly believe the full expression of the pose, whatever that is for my body, won’t come until I’m able to open my heart space in a way that’s both flexible and strong. How do we know we’re ready? What do we do when we’re afraid?
I contemplate heady life questions, while also breathing as calmly as possible in such a compromising position.
Knowing your limits
New York-based aerial arts instructor, circus performer, and blogger Laura Witwer writes about how knowing one’s limits is a way to prevent injuries. She talks about knowing your limits as part of learning to take calculated risks.
The tricky part about limits is: until we have quite a bit of experience, we often don’t recognize our limits until we’ve gone past them. That’s part of the reason why, Witwer tells us, and I would agree, it’s so important to seek out training.
Let me tell you about the first time I dropped down into splits on the silks, muscle memory clearly remembering a teenage gymnast body, not the work-addled, grad student body I actually had. I limped for a while after that.
Let me tell you about the last time we did too many shows in a row. Months later, I’m only now getting the splits back on my right side. There is pleasure, and at times, pain involved with being in a body as it moves.
Less fitness, more circus
Consider mainstream obsession with thin, white, heterosexual, able bodies, with dominant standards of so-called “perfection,” “symmetry,” and “balance.” Then imagine those standards projected onto an activity, which one must do endlessly to maintain their image (figure). That’s fitness culture.
Fitness culture encourages people to push past their limits toward some imagined goal:
No pain, no gain.
Pain is just weakness leaving the body.
Excuses are for people who don’t want it bad enough.
Toxic messages teach us to push past limits, shutting off or ignoring the body’s instinct that says, “stop.” This kind of relationship with our bodies is risky and causes pain and injury, damages trust for ourselves, and lowers our self-worth.
Circus arts are not about that. Most of us are still unlearning the messages about bodies we took in when we were kids. So, it’s no surprise when we get hung up on achievement, a certain aesthetic, “getting” a particular skill.
But I wonder if, at the heart of circus arts, is respect for our bodies and other people’s bodies. Whenever I find myself getting too attached to what I can do, or not do, I remember circus is about knowing your limits through careful exploration and play. About learning to be in the bodies we have now.
Playing harder isn’t always playing better. Play is about communication and being in your body, about power, and risk. Flow, or float, is where you’re in deep play, and that’s where it’s at in terms of making connections, feeling euphoric. In other words, making art.
Back in cheststand again
Chest on the ground, butt up up up. When I am here at the wall, I am learning to transfer the weight from my neck to my chest. I am learning how to breathe steady breaths while exquisitely uncomfortable. Wanting this is absolutely absurd.
Who am I to be this strange?
"When we are vulnerable, we come home to ourselves,
Violet writes on vulnerability in performance for Crazy Wisdom Community Journal.
Link to article: www.crazywisdomjournal.com/blog/2014/6/4/on-vulnerability-how-contemporary-circus-arts-teach-us-to-feel
“When I’m upside down, I feel curious, bold, and strong.”
Violet writes about contemporary circus arts for Crazy Wisdom Community Journal:
Link to article: www.crazywisdomjournal.com/featuredstories/2014/4/29/test