…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.Continue reading