…AND THEN I JOINED THE CIRCUS
Self-described “desk-bound journalist” Susan Carpenter decided to find out firsthand and feet-first how the females of the species are transforming the 21st-century circus. Now her back hurts. Photography by Lauren Klain.
Originally published in Arthur No. 2 (January 2003). Layout by W.T. Nelson.
Xia Kemin has Ember pinned. He’s got her left leg lodged under a foot-thick gym mat while he presses her right ankle up behind her ear. Ember is crying. Kemin, the former Chinese acrobat who is her teacher, just laughs. He knows that pain is the only way Ember, a 20-year-old daycare worker and wannabe contortionist, will ever become the human pretzel she’s dreamed of.
Ember is a beginning student at San Francisco’s Circus Center, a school that teaches “anything in the air, upside down, backwards and humanly impossible” to aspiring circus performers. The Center is also my first stop before joining Ringling Brothers for a couple days as I attempt to figure out why women are still running away to join the circus–and whether they do anything more these days than sit pretty on a trapeze.
I’ve never been to the circus, not even as a child, but it’s getting harder to avoid it. Circus is everywhere, nudging itself into the public consciousness through books like Katherine Dunn’s carnivalesque Geek Love, movies such as Freaks and the neo-pagan art ritual known as Burning Man. I knew it had reached critical mass last summer when a friend from San Francisco asked if 20 of her friends could stay at my house while their gypsy caravan whirled through L.A. in a flourish of fire wands, wigs and stilts.
Circus used to mean men wrestling snakes while women in glittery unitards flew through the air in front of sticky-fingered children. That all changed when the flashy French Cirque du Soleil came to town in 1987, throwing mimes, bungee jumpers and Chinese pole dancers into the mix and attracting a more adult crowd. Circus hasn’t been the same since. Today, there are not only more circuses–and schools to train for them–but there’s also more women joining the circus, fusing their own sense of style with traditional techniques. The centuries-old art form, it seems, is finally getting a much-needed kick in the pants.
The Circus Center is in a run-down gym that used to be a boys’ school. I’m here to take a contortionist class, in a room nicknamed the House of Pain by the school’s director. Class starts at 1 p.m.–right after lunch. Most students show up an hour early just to stretch—a great idea since this building has no heat. It’s freezing. When I walk in, there’s a girl in a velour sweat suit doing a handstand, her back bent into a Zorro-esque Z. Ember is bent in half backwards, her hands planted next to her feet. Another woman appears to be climbing a curtain, but she’s in a different class.
The school’s director puts me in the care of Chris Roguskie, a chatty transvestite with blue eyebrows whose 29th birthday is today. A New York transplant who’s been a student for about six months, he wants to combine “classic fetish stuff” with Mongolian dance and bowl balancing. He is the only boy in the class. Contortion is traditionally female, since women are naturally more flexible than men. Men have less subcutaneous fat than women and also have larger muscles, making their bodies more stiff. But everyone here has a tough row to hoe because they are older. Most contortionists begin training when they are toddlers.
Circus has, traditionally, been a family thing, with tricks of the trade passing from generation to generation. An ancient and traditional art, circus has long been home to outcasts and oddballs who’ve leveraged their abnormalities into financial gain, with a vagabond existence reinforcing their outsider status. Oftentimes, it was simply easier to marry another performer than to go outside the group. When kids came along, they were trained young and folded into the act, growing up to re-live the lives of their parents.
“Sometimes you wish your family had generations and generations, but it’s not like that, so you have to maybe work a little bit harder because it’s not in your blood. It’s in your own blood, but not your family’s,” says Michaela Barcklay, a 27-year-old student whose father was an FBI agent. Michaela has been taking trapeze, acrobatics and stilt-walking classes at the school for about a year and hopes to eventually join a circus. She was turned onto the idea at Burning Man. The hardest part of training, she says, is “doing it on days even when you don’t feel like it because you have to.”
The homework for aspiring contortionists takes about two hours a day and must be done every day. It includes 30 splits, 10 bridges (backbends where your hands are planted next to your feet) and 10 pretzels. That’s in addition to class.
Chris leads me through 45 minutes of intense leg stretches, then asks me to try a handstand against the wall and hold it for one minute. No problem, I think. I last 20 seconds before my arms give out and my head starts its collision course with the floor. I kick my feet down and whine: “My back hurts.”
“Everything hurts,” Chris tells me. “This is circus, not yoga. OK. Let’s get into the splits.”
Easy for him to say. I’ve been a long-distance runner since the age of 12. I’ve got thighs to rival an Olympic speed skater, but I give it a shot. While I’m straining to do this, two girls are upside down in perfect handstands, chatting about boys as if they were sitting in a cafe sipping coffee.
One of them is Jade Eclipse. A 25-year-old sex worker with a shock of green hair and a dragon tattoo, she has a thing for handstands. “Once I got up, I just never wanted to come down,” she tells me.
Hand balancing is a traditionally male stunt since it requires a ton of upper body strength, but Jade has it down. She makes balancing her entire body weight on one arm while doing the splits look easy.
When I try them, I can only come within six inches of the floor. This is where I end the class. As much as I’d like to whip my leg up over my shoulder, to continue would mean I need a stretcher. The rest of the students finish up with “the rack,” a bar they hang over backwards so the trainer can push their shoulders inward while a fellow student pushes their ankles into their faces. I can barely watch. They are screaming with pain.
Backstage at Ringling Brothers is far more upbeat. I’m at the Richmond Coliseum in Virginia, where the circus is performing 11 times in four days. Running around behind the scenes are clowns, midgets and girls in silver lame Cossack wear. And elephants, horses and tigers–many of which not only perform with, but are trained by, the show’s three female stars. It is the first time in Ringling’s 132-year history that it has featured so many women, two of them doing traditionally male acts: training tigers and hand balancing on a motorcycle.
I had wanted to add my name to that list and perform as a human cannonball during the two days I spent with them, but my contact there said it was too dangerous. The best she could do was let me try out the lira (a trapeze-like contraption), ride an elephant and eventually perform as a guest clown.
Being a clown is pretty much the only way an outsider like me can get in to a circus like Ringling, where all the performers come from generations of circus families. Sara Houcke, the 25-year-old Amazonian goddess and “tiger whisperer,” is seventh generation. Her father worked with animals. Her mother was a dancer. Born in England and raised all over Europe, she started performing at age 2. By 11, she was riding camels bareback. At 17, she struck out on her own with a one-woman animal act that involved horses, zebras and camels. She’s been with Ringling three years.
Women have worked with horses for a while, but tigers are traditionally handled by men because of the danger factor. Sara says she’s never scared, but “A lot of men can’t believe a woman will go into the cage with tigers because there’s not many men that would do it,” she tells me, her accent thick with German. “They always say, ‘You’ve got bigger balls than I do.’”
When I meet her seven tigers, they look like overgrown stuffed animals, even though they’ve got all their teeth and claws. They are furry, cuddly and snuggling in pairs. When Sara goes up to a cage and pets a snow white, he licks her hand, then purrs, making a loud, engine-ish noise akin to an idling 18-wheeler.
“They’re so cute,” she says.
Sara won’t let me get too close to the cage or touch them because she thinks they’ll mistake my fingers for snacks. Still, she says, “You’re lucky you’re a girl.” Her “cats,” as she calls them, “go crazy and ballistic” around men, even when they’re twice as far away as I am. “My cats hate males. I’ve trained ‘em well.”
Sara also performs with elephants. She introduces me to Karen, a lumbering 8,000-pound lady who eats more than my body weight every day. We feed her a snack – eight loaves of bread–then Karen takes me for a ride. I’m instructed to grab on to her ear and step on her leg–that she’ll hoist me up. I hesitate, thinking it will hurt her, but Karen doesn’t mind. She throws me on her back and walks me around the ring. I feel her shoulder muscles pumping up and down and need to hold on. When Sara performs with the elephants, she just sits on their foreheads while they walk around, crossing her legs and leaning back as if she were on a La-Z-Boy.
Everything in the circus looks far easier than it really is. I guess that’s to be expected when you start training at age three. When Sylvia Zerbini, a ninth generation aerialist, glides through the air, it looks effortless. But when Sue Carpenter, office-bound journalist, attempts it, she nearly crashes to the ground.
Sylvia is petite with short red hair that makes her a dead ringer for Peter Pan. She is letting me try her lira–a metal hoop that swings back and forth like a trapeze but can also spin in circles. During shows, she performs an eight-minute routine on it swinging around at high speeds and dangling 30 feet above the floor from her ankles, among other things. Before I so much as touch the hoop, she gives me some powdered resin so my hands won’t slip. She never uses lotion because it makes her skin too slick and could make her fall. Sylvia is one of the only female trapeze artists in the world to perform without a net.
She’s fallen only once. It was 1999, an opening night in Irvine, California, and Sylvia was doing her solo act high above the ring. Missing a move that required her to catch the trapeze with her heel, she fell headfirst before the crowd. The show kept going.
“It’s live entertainment. It’s not TV. I know we make it look easy, but it takes a split second for something to go wrong,” she says. “Everything you do has got to be 100%–not 95% or 99%. I was very lucky.”
Sylvia was back in the air in three months, even though she suffered a concussion and tore all her shoulder ligaments. I don’t like knowing this before I begin. Sylvia instructs me to pull myself onto the lira and sit in it. You’d think I sit around eating marshmallows all day from how little upper body strength I have. I can barely hoist my ass onto the bar. When I do, it digs into my backside. I ask Sylvia if she ever gets bruised. She shows me the permanent black-and-blue line across her thighs, butt and back and the calluses on the backs of her knees and heels and tops of her feet.
“I hate wearing swimsuits,” she tells me. It’s a shame because she has a beautiful, lithe body, practically devoid of any fat.
Sylvia is so thin because she rarely eats. Performing two or three shows a day, there isn’t time, she says. When she does eat during the day, it’s usually carrots she’s stolen from her eight Arabian horses, which she trains herself and with which she also performs.
Sylvia instructs her assistant to lift me up 30 feet in the air so I can sense the height at which she works. My head is practically in the rafters, and I am clinging to the hoop for life. She begins to slowly spin me around. It isn’t long before I want to heave. She drops me back down and asks me to get off, instructing me to “walk away gracefully and bow.” I drop clumsily from the hoop, stumble like a bum and almost fall.
I guess I really am best suited to be a clown. The people at Ringling have arranged for me to suit up and perform as part of something called “Adventure,” the hour before the circus begins when people can come onto the floor and meet the performers. Like the other clowns, I will meet and greet kids, sign autographs and do a gag routine for the crowd.
Only three of Ringling’s dozen clowns are female. “It’s hard to find funny women,” one of them tells me. She’s right, especially when it comes to the physical humor that is necessary to clown around.
Marni, my new clown friend, doesn’t have that problem. She looks like some sort of Renaissance Faire reject with gravity-defying red braids and a bulbous nose. Marni is working with Greg, another veteran clown, to get my face in order and pick out some clothes. I choose a hideous purple and green dress with stripes and polka dots, lemon yellow bloomers and a blue wig. I am, by far, the ugliest clown I have ever seen. I’m sure no children will want to talk to me, so I change into a pair of enormous purple pants with suspenders. I’m still hideous, but then I remind myself: clowning is not a glamour contest. Besides, it’s time to get started.
I’m nervous, but Marni and Greg give me only one piece of advice: “Be yourself.” We head out to the floor as a trio. Kids are flocking to Marni and asking to be photographed with Greg. When they’re too busy, a few brave souls ask the ugly one for an autograph. Their disappointment is palpable, but I just pull on my suspenders, smile and adjust my nose, which keeps slipping off.
I’m not enjoying myself, but it’s preferable to what I’m asked to do next: assist a far cuter, Ronald McDonald-like clown in a skit. I don’t even know what the skit’s about when I’m pushed into a circle ringed with laughing, screaming children. Ron takes the lead. He picks up a cardboard box, hands me a teddy bear, then walks away. Miming at me from across the ring, he asks me to throw the bear into the box. I miss. The kids laugh, even though this isn’t funny. I try again. This time the bear makes it into the box, but the bottom isn’t sealed so it falls through to the floor. The kids laugh harder. OK. I see. The new clown on the block plays the fool. Very funny. Now get me outta here.
The moment I leave the stage, I retire backstage to wash off my makeup (it takes four applications of baby shampoo) and head out to the audience where I belong.
Show time. Sylvia swings into action, opening the night on her trapeze. She touches down in the center ring, then climbs a rope 30 feet up to the lira to begin the next part of her routine. I can see the muscles in her back, even though I’m about 100 feet away. When she begins spinning around at high speeds, I’m glad to be sitting in the bleachers nibbling on my snow cone.
After various routines that include the clowns, an alligator wrestler and a Kenyan tumbling troupe, Sara takes the stage with her tigers. It’s after intermission, so the stagehands can rig a cage around the center ring. If there was any question as to the tigers’ ferocity, it is quelled when one of them roars and swipes a paw at someone walking by.
Sara calls the tigers out one by one and instructs them to sit on their perches. One disobedient feline jumps off. It leaps back onto the perch after Sara pets it and gives it a kiss. Sara is constantly smooching with her cats, so much so that her assistant complains about the lipstick in their fur. Sara is dressed to the nines, wearing beaded gold pants, a matching chiffon blouse–and a meat pouch around her waist that is filled with three-inch cubes of raw steak which she feeds the tigers by hand during her show. It isn’t just the tigers who love her. The crowd is eating it up, too.
A 2-1/2 hour extravaganza, Ringling’s finale kicks off with the husband-and-wife team, Jon and Laura Weiss–the former being a human cannonball, and the latter lighting the fuse. “There’s great satisfaction in sending your husband flying at 65 miles per hour,” Laura says.
The show ends in sensory overload, with nearly every performer and animal on the floor, pyrotechnics and confetti flying. The Greatest Show on Earth? I can certainly understand where Ringling got the name. It’s an amazing spectacle. But there’s something more to it, too. Under the big top, beyond the excitement, glitz and glamour, is a unique profession in an insular world, one that allows adult performers to indulge their youthful spirits amidst an extended family and one that is finally allowing women the opportunity to express themselves in ways that surpass the norm.
If tiger whispering and hand balancing are the beginning of a new wave in circus, I have to wonder what’s next. A musclebound female lifting slabs of concrete with her teeth? A femme fatale in a fur bikini wrestling pythons? Some modern-day Xena catching bullets with her bare hands? Only time will tell.