The Underrated, Under-Appreciated Art of Circus

meg silks blog

My first aerial silks performance after 1 year of classes

Three years ago, 24-year-old me was riding the subway back home from work and noticed I was a hop and a skip away from the Actor’s Gymnasium, a circus and performing arts school offering classes, camps, and workshops. At that point in my life, I had already begun a personal project I dubbed “Project Body,” a lifelong commitment to make myself as fit as I could. As part of Project Body, I was working on my flexibility after some inspiration from the Yoga X workout from the Tony Horton’s famous P90X workout, which after doing for a while, I was finally able to touch my toes. I didn’t know it at the time, but that small victory changed my entire attitude about my body.

My body could be changed in a short period of time – a matter of weeks, and I could see transformations.

It was then that curiosity got the best of me and I checked out the AG website, noticing that they offered a Contortion (which we jokingly call “contorture”) class. At some point, I decided that I wanted to be able to do the splits. Without any dance or gymnastics training as a child, I was never limber. Before yoga, I had never done flexibility training of any kind. Nearly all of my childhood extracurricular activities involved sitting still. I spent a lot of time in front of the computer from elementary school writing HTML from scratch to practicing piano and cello throughout my middle school years to dabbling in Photoshop in my high school years. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time hunched over a desk studying and working throughout college and my early twenties. I’m afraid to know how much of my life I’ve spent sitting idly in a chair, wasting away the years in which my body was at its physical prime. I was never afraid of working hard, but the hours spent sitting, hunched over my work, resulted in my exceptionally stiff body. I knew that undoing it would require a monumental amount of effort.

The first day I entered contortion class, I knew I would be the least flexible person in the class. It was incredibly discouraging to see young children contort with what looked like minimal effort, easily doing what I wish I did when I was their age. But I knew that I came from a very different place, and despite that, I couldn’t compare myself to them.

We all get dealt a different set of cards, and that would of course dictate our starting lines, but not our finish lines.

Thus, in terms of flexibility, undoing all the years of bad habits would require an insane amount of willpower and dedication. What would take a younger person a few months to accomplish would take me several years. After that humbling day, I dedicated myself to stretching every day for at least 30 minutes. I learned a lot in the process – that in itself is worth its own blog post – but what I did not know was that my flexibility training would lead me to try aerial arts. What I thought would just be a one-time “fun” thing to do became a thought of “maybe if I keep doing this, I’ll get better at it…” and eventually, something I loved to do.

Circus acrobatics combines physical finesse with artistic ability, so it is a natural art for gymnasts, actors, and dancers. It is a multi-disciplinary pursuit, combining physical strength, balance, coordination, flexibility, endurance, artistic ability, creativity, teamwork, and courage, into consistent, quality performance.

That’s a lot to ask of anyone.

I’ve immersed myself in the circus world for three years (one of the years was devoted entirely to stretching, and rightly so, for how stiff my body was) and I have come to realize just how much artists suffer for their art in a very tangible way. The first time I worked on a silk knot, I fell out with my very first circus injury, a friction burn. Bruises, burns, parts of skin peeling off, blisters, and other minor wounds became a regularity. Yet the physical pain  is just a fraction of the suffering these artists willingly undergo.

Even though circus arts is becoming more popular, circus arts get much less media coverage than mainstream events. People still get more excited about watching sports events, movies, or the latest episode of a TV show. For how exciting and impressive circus arts is, you hardly hear about it in the media. You don’t hear much about circus superstars; their identities tend to be hidden by the companies and organizations that they work for. So much of the allure is in the mystery – tricks were traditionally passed down through close-knit circus families – but now that it has become more mainstream, much of the mystery is fading away. We now know that it is simply a rigorous training regimen and an intentional immersion in a supportive network of fellow artists. And for the most part, fellow artists are supremely friendly and very willing to share knowledge. I have not met a single artist who hesitated to teach me a trick.

Tricks are usually informally taught and learned, and of course are not protected intellectual property. Teachers now have to worry about the new problem of passing on tricks to future instructors, and seeing them replicate exactly what they taught, and profiting. Instructional videos are surfacing all over YouTube and some of them explain the tricks very well. A good teacher will correct your form and teach you all sorts of ways to keep yourself safe when executing tricks, something YouTube will not do for you.

The wonderful thing about circus is that after you meet enough professionals and enthusiasts, you realize that it is a very, very humbling community to be in. There is always someone who is better or more talented than you, so sources of inspiration are endless, which means it is always possible to get better – physically or artistically. Circus performers are acutely aware of their physical abilities, and they have to be – the skills required for circus performance truly puts your body through insane trials of strength and unlocks artistic potential. For adults, creativity often gets lost in the doldrums of daily life, and circus is one art that keeps our imaginations alive.

So I’m thankful – really, really thankful – for the kindness, tough love, and generosity I’ve experienced from the Actor’s Gymnasium and the growing Chicago circus community. I only look forward to what my future training brings.

If you’re fortunate to live in or close to a major city, there are surely circus facilities in your area, but even if you don’t, it doesn’t hurt to check. Taking a class, even just once, is still a unique experience!

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