Circus performer reinvents her big top career after a major injury


Have you ever dreamed of running away and joining the circus? If so, you may be surprised to read about what a professional and lucrative career path can be had in the circus arts! Along with physical strength and agility, individuals entering this field should have marketing experience, business savvy, and computer skills. Read on to hear how this individual didn’t pursue her circus dreams until she was in her 20′s, and has still found herself soaring through the industry with the greatest of ease.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?
I am a Circus Artist, which for me consists of being an Aerialist, Acrobat, Dancer, Yoga instructor, Personal trainer, Coach, Costume designer/fabricator and Makeup and Hair Artist. I work in the Circus industry full time and I have been in this industry professionally for 8 years. I would describe myself as empowered, inspiring, and abundant.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
There is so much to being a circus artist. Its a broad term, because it can entail many aspects of the industry. I co-owned a company for 5 years in WA state. We had a circus tent, box truck, tour bus, 30 subcontracted performers, and a warehouse to train in and hold classes in. In this particular setting I worked as a performer, administrator, artist director/costume designer and aerial coach. When running a full scale production company, one can only imagine that most of my work went into administration and business management. The company was U & I Productions and one of the shows we produced was Dream Science Circus (www.dreamsciencecircus.com).

After selling out my half of the company I moved to Vermont to pursue a higher level of professionalism in the industry. At the age of 28, and already 5 years into making my living as a professional, I wanted to train my body harder and put administration aside for awhile. A typical week of me training at the school consisted of 9 hours of dance (Ballet and Jazz,) and 25 hours of training acrobatics, aerials and conditioning, (that’s physical training 5 hours a day.) I did this full time for one year.

I then performed and taught on both the east and west coast. I toured with a company out of LA for a month before becoming injured. To be more specific about what performing and touring looks like, you do a lot of packing. Packing is a huge part of being in this industry. Packing includes, equipment, makeup, costumes, and clothes for the road. I spend a lot of time in airports. When I toured with a company out of Dallas, we flew to a different city every weekend for almost an entire year year. This was a lot of packing and unpacking, cleaning costumes, repacking and then back to the airport. When I was touring with Dream Science Circus for that five years I would joke with people and tell them I was a professional mover or packer. We had puppets, stilts, aerial rigs, circus tent and loads of costumes, a stage, lights, sound system. This is a lot to be packing and unpacking.

Right now my job description varies a bit from the past because I am healing from a severe injury. Currently I am not touring or training. I am working as a coach teaching aerials and acrobatics at the New England Circus Center. I also am working as a costume designer. I have made over ten costumes for other performers in the past 6 months. In the past two months I have done four stilt walking gigs which includes, packing, traveling, hair and makeup and of course entertaining the masses.

The greatest misunderstanding that I want to correct about this industry is the assumption that it is neither a lucrative, professional or serious industry. I understand that people see clowns and artist dressed up in crazy costumes, living gypsy lifestyles, but I hope people can start to see that this industry takes an immense amount of discipline, dedication and persistence. My own family confuses the circus industry with the carnival industry. These are two VERY different industries. Circus artists are trained athletes. Every day we watch what we do and what we put into our bodies. In order to make it as an artist you have to have business skills in order to promote, produce and book your artistry. The last misunderstanding I would like to clear up is that there is no money in it. On the contrary, there is a constant demand for circus artists, coaches etc.

What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best? Do you speak another language, and has it been helpful in your career?

I am a white Caucasian female. My race and gender have helped me. I speak conversational Spanish, a little Japanese and American Sign Language. Knowing other languages is very helpful in my career because I travel a lot.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
Definitely a 10! I am so satisfied in this career. I get to travel the world, create beautiful art, inspire and teach others, and master my physicality.

If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
I love training. I love pushing beyond my fears and trusting those I’m working with. When I’m training partner acrobatics I have to stay focused and push beyond fear and doubt. To step into someone’s hands and get tossed into the air takes absolute trust. This job moves my heart because it is really about being your best. When I coach I work with kids and adults on trusting themselves and each other, balance, coordination, confidence and strength. I love empowering others. I love being on stage and inspiring people to follow their own dreams. I love creating a beautiful costume pieces for fellow performers, knowing that they are going to look great and feel confidant!

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
My situation is unique because I am an island child. Raised in the Pacific North West in the San Juan islands. I wanted to be a dancer and acrobat so much as a child. I begged my parents to take me to classes. Living on an island with the last ferry being 6 pm, it was impossible for them to sign me up in any classes. I would watch the girls at school and mimic them. I would spend hours trying to stand on my hands and work on my cartwheels and splits in the yard with no help. I would simply pretend I was a professional.

Then, when I was an early teen and we moved to the mainland, I was able to check out a few classes. At the vulnerable and insecure age of 13 I went to the classes to find mean girls who had been training together since a young age. It wasn’t supportive or safe for me as a beginner. That’s also why I love circus. Its a non competitive industry to the degree that if you are just starting out, people are there to support and share with you. I quit before I began and at the age of 19 I thought I was too old to ever succeed. At 23 I met a profession aerialist who told me I wasn’t too old to start. I realized that it would be almost impossible to get hired without the experience, or skill level I needed. So, the best thing to do was to start producing my own shows. That’s when my best friend and I co-founded the company. We learned as we went and at the end of the 5 years we had grown so much that we couldn’t be ourselves anymore and decided to take a break.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
I called my best friend and asked him if he wanted to start a company. I had just discovered aerials at the Boulder Dance Festival and I was IN LOVE!

If I could go back I would have treated myself as a young person more lovingly. I wanted to be a dancer so badly that I suffered from anorexia. In making that choice on and off through out my teenage years I lost my muscle. When I fell in love with aerials it took me years to gain strength to learn skills. I stayed focused on the management and business side of things during those years. That really helped us get started, but I wish I had taken care of myself as a young person so that I could have progressed faster.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
When I get injured it is because I don’t take enough time off. I push myself too hard. Too many hours of training and my body can’t handle it. It’s a tough lesson to learn, that taking time off means that you may not have to take so much time off to heal from an injury!

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
If you want to do it. Then do it! Find it, research it and begin to practice it. Study, train and involve yourself in the industry. You will succeed!

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
I love this job because it is just strange. Being backstage is the best. You are immersed in another world. Backstage, people are running around, half dressed, fully dressed, undressed, re-dressing. Then you have the conversations such as “has anyone seen my eyelashes” Or the routine layout which sounds like, “So we pike up, to straddle, birds nest, split, shoulder to shoulder, slide down and finish with a double.” Another person needs help stretching and asks for someone to sit on them Someone might be standing right next to you getting ready to go out on stage and warming up by chirping, or shaking or grunting. I was in this number where I was a tiger, so back stage I warmed up by acting like a tiger.

I love seeing people get ready back stage, the transformation from normal to extraordinary.

Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
I do this everyday because it’s my life. It’s not just a job. I live as a circus artist. I wake up everyday and try to be my best. When I’m training full time, it takes discipline to get to the studio. I remind myself on the days when I’m feeling uninspired to train what a privilege it is and how grateful I am that this is my life!

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?

Injury! Injuries for anyone can be devastating. When you use your body for your work it can be really devastating when you get injured.

In 8 years I have torn my Sacroiliac joint, broken bones in both feet, was on crutches for two weeks due to a very sprained ankle, and the most recent is a severely pinched nerve in my neck. It is really hard to be injured when I have to sit back and refuse job opportunities. Sometimes I think I might like to be in an industry for which I’m not so dependent on my body. Recently I have just been focused on another aspect of the industry such as coaching and costuming and I am really happy!

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
It can be very stressful. A lot of times you are just learning a new routine with a choreographer that you need to perform for an audience the next day, at 12:00 am and after flying (practicing) for 6 hours. There was one show where I was finishing and sewing our costumes 20 minutes before we were about to be on.

When you are doing risky, dangerous skills in front of 3000 people you can be so nervous behind stage before you go out, that you feel you’re going to throw up. One of the most stressful experiences I remember is when we set our tent up at a festival in the mountains. There were 50 mile per hour winds. It was dangerous setting up the tent and then upon setting it up a half hour before call time, the winds ripped a 25 foot seam in our tent. That was stressful.

Traveling can be stressful to. Bad food, airports, sleeping on the tour bus, and being in close quarters with other company members. Also, doing a trick for the first time out of safety lines is always scary and stressful for me! I remain healthy and clam remembering that “The show must go on”. I eat as healthy as I can when I travel and I swear by emergency and immune boosters when flying a lot. I also receive a lot of massages, go to chiropractors, and spend regular time in physical therapy!

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
When I had my company I was making about 1500-4000 a month, from producing shows, teaching and doing gigs.
A coach earns 15-75 an hour. As a performer it is reasonable to expect 150 – 1000.00 per show or event, though contracts really do vary. I have worked for very little money for organizations I believe in, that do not have a big budget and I have performed for 4 minutes in Tokyo and was paid a 1000.00 dollars for it. Like I said earlier, it is a misconception that you cannot make a living in this industry. A friend of mine is making 700 every weekend on a 2 month contract. Another friend is making 1200.00 a week on a 3 month contract. It varies but the draw back is that its usually not consistent. It’s likely that a circus artist will make a bunch of money and then have a lull in work. That’s why many of us teach or do other aspects of the industry, such as my costuming which I make 25-35.00 an hour per costume, and most of them take between 10 -20 hours, (300 -600 for a costume.) There are rough months though. I have survived through dry months because I made money the month before. I am happy with how much I make. I would not want the responsibilities of a family on an income that fluctuates so much, but as an individual it’s perfect!

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
Because of the type of lifestyle that I have as a circus artist, I feel like I get a lot of vacation time. I think it’s due to traveling and staying in hotels or performing a lot in Mexico or exotic places, but on the other hand no taking time off means getting behind. I have had to take off for five months now from an injury, and I know that when I start training again I am going to have to work that much harder to get back in shape. This was the type of vacation I didn’t want to take.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
Dance, gymnastics, acrobatics, aerial training, theater, computer skills for administration jobs, marketing and booking. You need to know how to sell yourself.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

Get started right away! It’s a long road, and as an athlete we have short careers. People in the circus industry perform well into their mid and late 40′s! Its high time, go for it and have fun!

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

In five years I hope I have enjoyed working for other companies, touring and performing. I would be about to venture again toward the growth of my own company. The company would be a platform for community offerings; aerial yoga, circus therapy classes, circus classes for all ages, and would have the ability to produce shows regularly.

I hope to have a long successful life in this career and I hope to help others realize their dreams in this industry or another through the empowerment of circus arts!

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