It’s a long story…
For the past three years I have been training various Circus Arts for an average of about about 15 hours a week. Sometimes less and sometimes more, but always training…or resting from training, or driving to training , or thinking about training, or practising my training or being bruised from training. Always and forever with the training!
For a year and a half prior to that I was taking a couple of circus classes a week, which were all that was offered in my city at the time. So I’m coming up to 5 years of circus training…it’s hard work getting anywhere for someone as ‘green’ as me! I only learned a little bit of gymnastics and dance and drama when I was younger, and all when I was under the age of 10.
Early 2011, a huge earthquake levelled most of my hometown, destroying thousands of businesses and schools and homes, not to mention all the roads and bridges. There had been a dedicated circus school offering diploma’s in Circus Arts and Physical Theatre in Christchurch at the time, but after the earthquake the huge, brick building it lived in was no longer safe or habitable. The End.
The school was immediately shut down and left to rot. Rats moved in to take ownership of what had been a well-established training ground for Circus and Performance Arts in Australiasia. The cirque community needed to make a living and it wasn’t going to happen in a city with no public spaces, no roads and most importantly, no training facility. Lacking events, performance venues – and a willing audience – there was nothing for the carnies to do but leave town.
A few with school-age children remained. One couple rented an old, unused church space, brought in the acro mats, rigged up aerial points and new classes began as teachers were available and keen. It was a beautiful space with timber-lined gabled ceilings and lots of windows.
I started learning aerials in this old church four and a half years ago, with an ex-Circo Arts student for a teacher, cutting my circus teeth (or rather burning my armpit skin) on the tissu (silks) and trapeze. I thought I was quite fit and strong from obsessively landscaping a large, steep section for the past few years, but I could barely get up on the trapeze and couldn’t climb the silks at all. My arms and legs felt like noodles!
In my first class the teacher demonstrated how to mount the trapeze by pulling our legs under the bar. This involved a graceful forward fold under the bar to hook on her knees, from where she could grab the rope and pull herself to sitting. Or, in my case, it involved hauling my legs up with all my effort to hang onto the bar with my toes, then wrestling with the ropes and moving trapeze to grapple and fumble until eventually I was sitting on the bar. Man, did it hurt my backside, just sitting!
I was exhausted, sweating and puffed. And I hadn’t actually done anything yet, just got up on the damn thing! I dismounted and had some time out to catch my breath. After a while I managed to fight my way up to sitting on the bar again. Again, I was puffed, sweating and shaking with exhaustion. I went home with so many aching muscles and fell into an incredibly deep sleep – for 3 hours!
Every Saturday I returned for more circus punishment. After my first lesson I was determined to be able to do something – anything – on the aerial apparatus that looked like it might actually be a circus trick. For the next three months I would stagger home and drop into the sleep of the dead for the whole afternoon.
For five weeks I tried to get my 15 year old daughter to join me. I would talk about how fun it was and how good the teacher was. But she was barely out of her 14-year emo phase…nothing that Mum offered could possibly be cool!
Anthea had loved the jungle gym so much when she was little we got one for home. She spent her childhood up in trees, swinging around bars, rolling around on the grass and even did rhythmic gymnastics for a year. When she was 7, I became obsessed with poi and started playing on some parallettes my flatmate owned. Most fine days Anthea and I could be found swinging round and round her bars, doing forward rolls and handstanding on the parallette bars on our little lawn.
I decided to audition for Circo Arts School at the end of the year. The entry criteria demanded some basic circus skills; juggling, a handstand into a forward roll and some choreography. I practised at home every day and managed to master the handstand forward roll and basic juggling. I took up lessons with an adult gymnastics coach to help me create a choreographed routine.
I had been fascinated with gymnastics and acrobatics ever since I saw the ‘Lympic Games’ on television when I was four. I was already one of those daredvil, feel-no-fear, climbing and jumping kids that would give any parent nightmares (so sorry, Mum), I climbed up trees and hung upside down and flung myself everywhere, and generally just got in the way of the television with my cartwheels and headstands (4 miutes and 1 second!). I gave my poor Mum repeated frights with my ninja-prowess at jumping off buildings while she was still asleep in bed.
The local school in my little hometown had a great collection of gymnastics equipment; there were vaults, parallel bars, beams and plenty of crash mats but no one teaching. One mum had practised gym for many years as a youngster and she wanted to see the equipment being used so started taking classes and teaching the other mums to teach. I found out, went and signed up after school and came home to tell Mum that she had to pay and take me to classes every Wednesday from now on!
With an hour to kill while I was bouncing and diving, Mum ended up hanging around the gym, then supervising some kids, then progressing through her gymnastics teaching badges while I was achieving mine. She had competed in gymnastics for quite a few years as a child and so the scene was not foreign to her.
A sudden move to a tiny, rural town ended my illustrious Lympic career in gymnastics and I was reduced to playing team games for my physical fix. The only option for a girl in my town was netball in fact, and since all my friends played I joined the team, though I didn’t, and still don’t, like the competitiveness of the sport and suffered a lot of anxiety for it, as well as heartache for missing acrobatics.
Fast forward 12 years and now I’m back – focussed on my training to audition for circus school and loving it! Determined to get on a trapeze and fly through the air, I practise acrobatics and juggling day and night. Well…until a guy crosses my path, that is. He was a great friend to me and my daughter for many years, but it was one of those star-crossed, ill-fated love affairs that left me shattered and broken and questioning everything about myself; my worth, my hopes and my abilities to work for and achieve my dreams, ludicrous as they now seemed.
Wanting to ‘be somebody’ and taken seriously in the adult world (I was a mother, after all) I dropped out of gymnastics and went to University instead. I embarked on a Bachelor of Arts and joined the Uni gym where I had my first taste of yoga (something which I am still enamoured with and practise regularly today). I still played with poi when I needed a vigorous break from sedentary study but otherwise my affection for circus was snuffed out again.
Another leap into the future sees me finally up on a trapeze eight years later (puffed and sweaty, but chuffed!) and 30 years after I had first seen the Olympics and discovered all things acrobatic. After six weeks of cajoling and pleading with my teenage daughter, she thankfully agrees to come to (just one) circus class with me. I know there will be no such thing as just one circus class and that if I can just get her to turn up the first time, she’ll be hooked forever.
Sure enough, even though she can do less than me since I’ve had a few more classes – and I can barely do anything – she asks if she can come back again. We look forward to our weekly classes, even though they still knock us out for hours afterwards, we love to watch more advanced students do tricks and moves that look gorgeous and we yearn to be able to do them ourselves.
Very quickly we realise that aerials are so difficult and painful and require so much strength that we are never going to be able to achieve anything even remotely beautiful or clever with just one class a week. As the circus classes gain a bigger following in the old church, our teacher starts to offer more classes and we sign up for everything she offers, we are so hooked.
Pretty soon we are doing up to three or four classes a week and we develop some strength and master some basic moves (like mounting the trapeze and climbing the silks!). Some aerial hoops (lyra) appear at the circus studio and we begin to play on those too, spinning and swinging and making pretty shapes.We learn how much flexibility is just as important as strength and we try a contortion class with another ex-Circo student.
Then our aerial teacher moves overseas and the contortion teacher disappears from the school! Some girls that have been training not much longer than us start to teach and we continue to learn, though at a much slower and slightly more dangerous pace!
The church is condemned to an earthquake death and our tiny class is moved to an uninsulated, low-ceiling garage that principally houses a pole-dancing studio. There is no trapeze, or even the height for one anyway, and the silks are not long enough for doing the drops like we had been, and there are painful poles in between the hoops that feet can be smacked on. A small bunch of us remain committed to training together and learning what we can from a motivated student-cum-teacher.
I find out the contortion teacher is now offering classes at another pole dancing studio in the city, and even better, she also offers acrobatics, aerials and specialty circus fit classes. My daughter and I sign up to the studio and are astounded at the level of strength, determination and flexibility of the pole girls. It motivates us to give and do more and we find ourselves signing up to a mad schedule of up to 12 classes a week, including a couple of hours training time with our group of girls. We sneakily get an aerial point put into the high ceiling of the house we are renting and can now practise lyra and silks at home too – wahoo!
Anthea is studying her guts out in her final year of high school and I have a busy career working for a local fashion brand, but still we manage to feed our circus addiction with intense training every week. We start to make some serious gains, mostly in flexibility (her) and strength (me) and acro as we are still limited to low-range manoevres on the aerial apparatus.
Anthea performs silks during the intermission of her high school play and we sign up to perform acro together, with a small crew, on Anthea’s 20th birthday. Anthea bases me in a two-high on stage, and I am struck with the weirdness of giving birth to this circus goddess 20 years earlier, carrying her all through her childhood and now she is carrying me on her shoulders!
After more than three years of training together, Anthea heads overseas on a big OE with her best friend. We lived together, worked together and trained together and now she’s gone! I commiserate by heading off on a two-week acro-yoga intensive course in Auckland and Sydney. While in Sydney, I take some handstand and acro classes at the Aerialize Circus Studio.
Training full-time for two weeks really elevates my skill level and sense of accomplishment as a flyer. Is it possible to get even more addicted to circus?! The commitment and camaraderie of the pole girls at my training studio continues to inspire me and I persist with my mad training schedule.
I should probably take a moment to acknowledge and introduce my circus teacher: Mim Syme is a young, talented, international circus performer specialising in contortion, hand-balancing and adagio. Having trained in dance and circus since she was just a little girl she has since mastered a lot of circus apparatus and disciplines in her time. She has studied and performed in many parts of the world and had just completed a diploma in Circus Arts and Physical Theatre at Circo Arts, about to take it to degree level, when the Christchurch earthquake annilhilated the school.
Having met her New Zealand husband at circus school she was now firmly embedded in Christchurch and together the husband and wife duo were looking to bring the circus back to town in a big way. In May of 2016, with some funding support from our local council, they opened a brand new, dedicated circus space close to the city centre: Circotica Circus School.
For the past few months I have been stepping my training up again at Circotica – and after more than three years am finally back on a trapeze! I feel like I am falling in love with an old flame all over again. But even better than that – with the dedicated circus studio, huge tumbling mats and numerous aerial points the range of classes has expanded to include many more circus arts, including aerial doubles, which is proving to be a new and exciting addiction in my circus bag.
I am training one-on-one with Mim weekly too, specialising in hand-balancing and acro. Yes, that means I am now practising up on handstand canes, though most days it still completely terrifies me and it will be years before I am proficient. I meet up with a friend (or two) often and we practise acro and devise ridiculous performances together.
I am trying to show up more often with my circus. I mean, I have been doing it for a long time! I am committing to performing in amateur shows as the opportunities arise. I have never given performing much thought as I’ve been totally focussed on absorbing as much teaching and practise as I can. I am a perfectionist too, and super shy – I tend to freeze in the headlights up on stage and forget everything!
Learning circus skills, much like practising yoga, has been beneficial to me in so many ways. My age, my workload and my circus schedule demands that I eat and sleep really well. No more boozy late nights, cigarettes and junk food. I have forged a deep bond with my daughter over our mutual love for all things cirque and health/fitness related goals, and have a solid support crew of fellow pole and circus fiends who get it.
I am hyper-aware of the condition of all my muscles and ligaments at any given time and tend to them individually as needed. It’s become a necessity to really listen to my body and give it what it most needs, whether that is a week off training, a whole day of stretching out the kinks or remedial massage and osteopathic treatments to restore my muscles and give them something back for all the work they do for me.
I turned 40 a few months ago and I can honestly say that I have never been as strong and flexible in my life as I am now.
My success has been hard-won on another front too. I have suffered crippling back pain since my late teens, compounded by carrying a baby with my small frame (I’m a midget according to my daughter). Long days working in heels at salons, and sitting at computer desks, heavy landscaping and lugging bulk loads of books up and down university stairs have all contributed to my debilitated state. My suffering
When I arrived at my first contortion class I didn’t tell Mim of my twenty-year back troubles; that I couldn’t stand up straight for the first hour of the day or do an upward-facing dog without excruciating crunching in my lower back, and that often the slightest movement of my spine would cause a nervine seizure so debilitating I would be laid up and in agony for days. Of course I’m pretty sure she could tell straight away! She never said anything though, but just kept on pushing me to get stronger in my flexibility so I could eventually hold backbends and other shapes safely (2 years later!).
After 18 months of doing contortion classes with Mim my mornings were no longer crippling me, and now after more than two years of intensive strength and flexibility training my back pain is a thing of the past. I still have outstanding issues with my left leg but that is a story that can wait for another time…
So, there you have it. The long-winded tale of how I came to fall in love with the circus. I am finally starting to form some solid goals of what I would like to achieve with this unusual addiction of mine (while counting down the weeks until Anthea returns to NZ and we can train together again!) I hope to share these goals and my journey getting there with you here on this blog. Please stick around and stay in touch!
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