WB: I auditioned Wednesday and found out Saturday [yesterday] that I'd been accepted into the year-long program. I spent Thursday through Saturday mentally deconstructing every moment of my audition and thinking about everything I would have done differently. Going into it, I didn't have any idea what a circus school audition would entail and since I'd already submitted a video, I thought the program director would mostly just ask me questions and maybe have me do pull-ups. It turned out to be an ordeal on the scale of what I'd imagine tests of heroism to be like for tribal societies. First of all, the program director, herself a professional performer, is intimidating to anyone, even with her new baby strapped around her midsection.
She began by ordering me to do multiple tumbling moves I'd never even heard of. Then before I could catch my breath, I had to demonstrate my flexibility by doing splits and back-bends, then handstands and partner acrobatics, then complicated moves on a trapeze, then exhausting tricks and inversions requiring almost superhuman strength on aerial silks, then climbing 30 feet up to the ceiling on the silks, and then more inversions. At the end to test my musicality, I had to improvise an act to a song I'd never heard before, which turned out to be barely audible, slow piano music. The program director told me not to try to impress her with all the tricks I knew, but instead to try to synchronize my movements to the music, but also to try something I'd never done before. So exhausted and frazzled, I tried my best, but still worried that my moves were too powerful for the slow music and my timing was off. I felt like it was some kind of initiation and when the director told me by e-mail that I'd been accepted I was certainly proud, but after my audition I have no remaining illusions about the physical and emotional trials I'm subjecting myself to next month when the program starts.
JB: I'm exhausted and I don't even know what most of the moves are. I'm assuming that's true for many if not most of our readers as well. Whitni, can you give us a better idea of just what you're up to? What are aerial silks? Partner acrobatics? Inversions? And what did you include on your video?
WB: An aerial silk, generally just called "silks" is a strip of durable nylon fabric with at least some stretchiness which can be folded in half and hung vertically from a tall ceiling so that its two long ends dangle down, usually just touching the ground. Performers can then climb the fabrics like a rope, wrap the silks around their feet into a "foot lock" so that they can securely stand up, and do tricks that require great strength and flexibility while being mesmerizing to watch, since the fabric flutters as the performer moves along its length. Silks classes are increasingly in demand all over America for the great full-body workout they offer, helping people tone and strengthen their bodies using their own weight for resistance while learning beautiful, picture-worthy tricks. The singer Pink helped to popularize silks by doing an aerial performance on them at the last Grammy Awards ceremony.
Partner acrobatics, also called "acro yoga", encompasses a wide array of tricks, movements, and positions that can be done by two or more people where weight is distributed evenly so that one person, the "base", can hold up the weight of the other, the "flyer". When more than three people participate it is called "stacking". This is similar to what cheerleaders do when they stand on each other. Partner acrobatics requires both the base and the flyer to tense their muscles and remain rigid to facilitate weight bearing. It also requires good communication and dedicated spotters because if the base or flyer get wobbly it is difficult to recover and easy to fall. Most cities have a community of people who get together to practice partner acrobatics at jams. It is also often done by couples because it builds trust and communication while being fun and engaging.
An inversion is anything where you go upside down, such as a headstand. An inversion done on any aerial apparatus means that you have to get your hips up over your head, which is difficult for beginners. It took me months of thinking I would never get it and now it's second nature. A common inversion on aerial silks is where you grab on tightly to the silks and pull your legs straight over your head so that your body is straight and upside down. This is called either "pencil" or "arrow" depending on the terminology of each studio. In partner yoga, a similar trick called "candlestick" can be done where one person lies on his back with bent knees and the other person grabs his thighs while he holds her shoulders and she straightens her legs up toward the ceiling in a handstand position.
In my audition video, I had to do as many pull-ups as I could, which at this point is three. Then I did straight-leg leg lifts while hanging off a bar, then straddle inversions, which is where you put your hands together on a bar or on silks and invert with your legs open in a v-shape perpendicular to your torso. These are notoriously hard because your hands have to support your body weight, and with correct form the arms and legs remain straight the whole time, the whole body is engaged and toes are pointed. I was able to do only four. After that I included the same flexibility tricks I was later asked to demonstrate in the audition, plus a two minute aerial act.
JB: What you're describing sounds incredibly demanding. The average person would never be able to, for instance, grab a silk and climb up it and hang. They would have to be in great shape, which you happen to be. Were you always?
WB: Not by any means, in fact, I'm proof that the average person could work his or her way up to doing things on aerial equipment that even now seem utterly impossible. I have no background in dance or gymnastics and I spent most of my childhood and teenage years prostrate and couch-bound. When my interest in circus was sparked by my encounters in Mexico, I didn't think I'd ever be able to do any of the strength, flexibility, and coordination tricks I saw my friends doing, but when I got back to Chicago, I decided to try a static trapeze class. (Static trapeze is different from flying trapeze because it is usually practiced lower to the ground and the trapeze remains mostly stationary while the aerialist uses the horizontal bar and the vertical ropes to do sequences of tricks; whereas in flying trapeze, two trapezes occupied by different people are swung toward each other at a dizzying height and one person attempts to catch the other in mid air.) After nearly a month of classes, I was still never able to get myself up onto the trapeze bar without help from someone hoisting me up and I would start feeling exhausted during the warm-up at the beginning of class. I was consistently the weakest and most uncoordinated person there and I did get discouraged, but I didn't give up altogether. I practiced partner acrobatics with a friend and we put on mini-performances in his yard for his neighbors and family and I'd go to parks to try to practice the few trapeze moves I'd learned on pull-up bars or tree branches.
Five years later, just before turning thirty, I decided to stop making excuses and get into shape. I chose yoga mostly because it seemed less strenuous than other forms of exercise. I was still living in Mexico and selling my handmade jewelry, so I couldn't afford yoga classes, and by then I was living part time on my own bus and had nowhere to practice, but I resolved to take fifteen minutes out of my day for yoga, so before going to set up my vendor's table, I'd walk to the beach, throw down my puppy-chewed mat and do a yoga sequence I'd improvised from books and the few classes I'd attended over the years. On my walk out to my preferred yoga spot, I would pass by a pair of red aerial silks billowing down from a palm tree, which were used for occasional aerial shows at a local bar. They loomed in my mind as an eventual goal and I often thought of returning to circus but I still didn't feel ready.
My fifteen minute practice soon grew to a half hour, then a full hour, then, as I started to really enjoy it instead on just forcing myself to do it, I'd spend as much time as I could spare on my mat. As I got more flexible and strong, I started adding more difficult postures to my yoga routine, and after a year I felt better. I'd unconsciously made other healthy changes to my lifestyle, I felt proud of the positive changes noticeable in my figure, my posture improved, I learned patience, I felt more confident, and I was ready to try trapeze again.
Last summer, I started taking weekly static trapeze classes and pretty soon I spread out to silks and aerial hoop, also called lyra. The benefits I'd noticed from my yoga practice increased exponentially and I soon found myself doing things I'd never imagined possible. I started out with small goals and low expectations, but sooner than I'd ever dreamed, I was able to build up to more challenging moves. People think that they have to be young or fit or naturally flexible or strong to do the things I do, but really, the only thing that holds you back is not believing in yourself. Once I started to achieve my small goals, my confidence blossomed and I felt enthusiastic about seeing what else I could do. The fact that I could teach my body to do the splits is enough evidence for me that anything is possible.
JB: What kind of curriculum are you anticipating? It seems like you already have a lot of skills and tricks under your belt. What's your year going to be like?
WB: In one word: overwhelming. I have a good foundation of strength and flexibility, which should help me learn quickly, but since I didn't start out with any kind of dance, I always forget to keep good form, such as pointing my toes while simultaneously exerting excessive force and hanging upside down by one hand, foot, knee, or elbow. I'm going to take dance classes three times a week, in addition to juggling, clowning, act-building, and a whole class that is dedicated to developing a theatrical character. For five hours a day, I'll be taking these foundation classes with the other ten full-time students. We are then encouraged to take up to ten hour and a half classes a week in any circus skill, which is a patently inhuman workload, but the director told me not to worry and that most people take only five. If I survive three months of that, I'll be given a private coach who will give me personal instruction on a single apparatus, my "major" and then I'll be trained in a skill on the ground, my "minor". The end of the program is dedicated to creating an act that I will perform with all of the other students in a final showcase.