Sunday, October 22, 2017

Precious Moments, People Moments: Fountain Watchers

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”
~Booker T. Washington

When I exited the Bellagio into the hot darkness of a Vegas August night, I knew exactly where I wanted to go.  I had only one day in Vegas, and so  I had spent the afternoon at Circus Circus, dinner at a buffet, and the evening at Cirque du Soleil’s “O”.  The day wasn't done yet though—a fountain show was about to begin.

I'm not the only one who thinks the Bellagio fountains are one of the best things in town.  By the time I arrived at the water's edge, crowds had already lined the lake. As the water began to dance with the music, there was not a spot to be had with an unobstructed view, not even a decent partial view.

Then I noticed, just back of the crowds, a fence protecting a tree trunk. Experience has taught me that barriers are often the best props and playgrounds, so it didn't take me long to see this fence's potential.

Even better, everyone was in front of the view-obstructing tree trunk, intently watching the water, so I wouldn't block anyone's view if I improved my own.  Sold.

Up I went.

With my feet on a railing, my shoulder firmly against the solid trunk, I happily enjoyed my improved view as streams of liquid light surged to the music.

A minute or two into the show, the crowds were even denser, filling in more and more the space in front of my tree. As I glanced down at late arrivals searching for space, I noticed a braided head bobbing up and down—a little girl's frustrated attempts to see beyond the wall of bodies, heads, and mobile screens.  I could sympathize with someone far shorter than me desperately wanting to see the fountains. I crouched down carefully on my perch and tapped her shoulder, catching the mother's attention as well.  “Up here,” I said as I patted the railing by way of explanation and invitation. The girl gave me her hand, and in a moment was up in front of me. I moved farther around the back of the tree to make room for a younger sister to be boosted up as well. On my other side, an older brother (proudly) scrambled up on his own.

I had been happy with my vantage point, even a little pleased with the slight ingenuity and agility required to obtain it. As the show continued, I was even more glad about the little crowd that circled the tree in front of me. Six more feet had found sure footing above the ground, while three heads rose above the crowds to see something beautiful.

The music crescendoed then faded, jets of water sank down to mere eddies under the smooth surface of the water. The parents lifted down their children, ready to move on down to the next attraction on the Strip. Then, to my surprise, a hand reached up to help me down last of all—a father's simple thanks to a stranger.

With a few friendly words, we went our separate ways, but a tree, a fence, and a momentary friendship were for me souvenir memories as much as the bright city lights and fountain show.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Oooh, Ahhh, “O”

Water flows,
Fire glows,
Wind blows,
And Spirit knows.

Water, air, fire—the essence of “O” is elemental.

Housed in a custom-built theater to accommodate the complex rigging for immense aerial props above and a giant circular swimming pool in the stage below, “O” never goes on tour.  And since this most popular Cirque du Soleil shows never goes on tour, I traveled the 500 miles to it.

I had fallen in love with the snippets of "O" I had seen on Worlds Away.  When I found myself with an airfare voucher that was expiring, on impulse, I decided to give myself a solo weekend doing circus in Vegas. Actually, I had booked my ticket not even really knowing just how popular the show was.  I didn't want to spoil it even by looking at the show information online beforehand. Almost as soon as I landed in Las Vegas, I had confirmation that my last-minute impulse trip was going to be worth it.

In the airport, around the airport, on the strip—"O" was advertised everywhere.

The Theater

The theater captured my heart even before the curtains opened and performers entered, first with the entrance gallery and it's "O" inspired sculptures:

Next with the classic theater—large enough to be impressive, but intimate enough that, as far as I could tell, there were no bad seats in the house.  After being on my feet for most of the afternoon at Circus Circus (standing was the way to get as close to the performance as possible), I was happy to melt into my red plush seat.

Source: jenchau on Flickr. O Show Theatre in Bellagio

As I slouched lower in my seat, I glanced up...and became enamored with the theater ceiling.  Actually, I decided that the soothing translucent blue and green fabric waves overhead were as intriguing as the pre-show clowns, especially since they gave glimpses into the rafters and rigging above.

Source: DaveC_1973 on Trip Advisor Event Review: Simply Sensational

After some pre-show fun, the curtains opened.

 "Opening" seems like an inadequate description: the red curtains that had been hiding the stage were released from the top, but as they began fluttering down, suddenly they were sucked away as if a black hole lurked in the rafters behind the stage. empty stage.

I should say, rather, a stage bare of performers.  A red circle lay in the middle of the empty stage like a blood moon.  There was one more bit of magic to start the show: while the first red curtains were whisked away, the matching red on the floor parted like a standard curtain would.  Looking down at a curtain "rising" horizontally, I was half tempted to stand up in my seat and lean over to try to turn the world right side up...or perhaps to fall into the liquid moon that was revealed.  That liquid moon opened the show, and the primary element of "O"  took the spotlight: water.


The name for the show, "O", is a play on the French word for water, "eau", and water plays a major part throughout the show, even when other elements are showcased. It is hard to put into words just how cool the ambigious wet world of the "O" stage is.

Source: Murillo Ferrarez on LinkedIn "Ir ao circo me custou 532 reais….."

Yes, there's water there...but it isn't always an open circular pool of water like what was revealed when the curtains first parted. The stage can go completely dry, or be a half circle of water, a crescent, or a donut with an island in the center.  The amphibious stage pieces come up out of the water and sink back down in—all the way, or only part way so performers stand in ankle-deep or calf-deep water, or at angles to create ramps.

What is even more incredible than the stage changing, is that it is constantly changing throughout the performance.  The curtains don't come down for a set change in between acts and rise again to reveal a new configuration, the changes happen while acts are underway, and happen often.  There is a truly dynamic flow to "O".

Source: It's Las Vegas Time, "O" Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas

With the stage shifting constantly, synchronized swimmers in the water, dancers on dry (or semi-dry) stage, and aerialists in the air, there is a lot to watch in "O". With so much going on, there is a definite "blink and you'll miss it" quality to the show.  This is compounded by the fact that the pool actually has underwater snuba breathing apparatuses and exits out of view of the audience.  When any of the Olympic caliber synchronized swimmers (and many are in fact medal-winning Olympians) slip under the surface, they may or may not be coming back up.

And it isn't just the synchronized swimmers who may disappear.  When the giant flying carousel horses came down out of the ceiling with riders on them, I was mesmerized; when they dipped down to skim the water, I was enchanted.

Source:, Review of "O"

But, worried that I might be missing something else on the stage, I looked away from the floating horsemen...and when I looked back they were gone!  Just gone.  Vanished.  To this day I feel slightly bereft over missing the moment when they disappeared.  I don't know if they floated out of view to the sides or if those giant horses and their riders actually disappeared underwater.  I'll just have to go back and see "O" again someday to find out what I missed in that particular moment.


The act I had been most excited to see was Bateau, the Air Boat aerial act.  Privately, I had been calling it the "Ghost Ship" act—and if ever the cursed pirates of the Carribean were impressed into service under a big top, I am quite sure that the full moon would create something like Bateau.

The skeletal frame boat is cool enough on its own to dance and act and play on as it rocks in midair, but it is made even cooler by supporting elements of both trapeze and parallel bars.  Actually, it made me feel sorry for gymnasts—regular parallel bar gymnasts never get to mount by jumping off a platform, catching someone's hands, being swung over water, and then being thrown up between the bars and catching them on their way back down.  It's worth a quick watch:


Fire isn't my element, but it wouldn't be fair to skip it.  The fire displays were pretty spectacular.  The fire dance was cool, and I loved the lingering rings of fire that managed to flicker on the stage floor even without fuel.  Even more though, I loved the fire clown—who casually read a newspaper while the other performer spun and swirled...and continued reading casually even as he was burning up himself.  Fire is an element of energy, of insatiable hunger, destruction, light, and movement...which is totally at odds with unmoving, contemplative perusal of the news.

Elements Combine

Even better than single elementals, "O" combines them.  If I had to choose any Cirque du Soleil show to work at, it would definitely be as an aerialist in "O" hands down. In part that's because I'm a wimp and like the idea of any mistake landing me in a pool rather than onto a hard stage floor.  Even more though, it's because I love the combination of water and air.  Appropriately, my one sport in high school was springboard diving—chlorinated aerial acrobatics with a wet landing.

The diving in "O" was another one of the welcome and unexpected little surprises that my trip to Vegas gifted me with.  In retrospect, it seems obvious that with a pool, swimmers, and acrobatics, that there would be diving. It's also clearly listed on the website that I hadn't look at.  Luckily I enjoyed my discovery "duh" moment too much to feel silly.

The actual high diving was a lot of fun—performed at a height double that of Olympic platform diving—but even more than the traditional diving, I loved the Russian swing diving.  Single Russian swing into a net or mat with spotters is impressive, double Russian swing to me looks a little scary precise (being launched off one platform and having to land on another Russian swing platform.  To a former diver, a water landing with a Russian swing launch just looks downright fun.

Source: Cirque du Soleil Auditions and Jobs for Divers

The "O" acrobat divers got to do all sorts of things that my coaches never encouraged.  They strike funny and awkward poses in the air instead of sticking to pretty, precise tucks and pikes.  Even more impressive, they stop their rotation at a full horizontal, plummeting spread eagle toward the unforgiving water surface.  Having landed horizontal, I know how much it can hurt, so when I saw the divers headed toward a full body water slap, I cringed--but I kept my eyes open.  I was glad I had when I saw the acrobats, at the last second, pike so that their hands and feet hit at the same time.  My coaches taught me feet first entries and head first entries, but not head and feet first entry. It's a little awkward looking, but it definitely made my list of things I would like to learn if I ever take up diving again.

Source: Jolly Diver, Diving Jobs at Cirque du Soleil

The sounds of "O" whisper farewell

Early the next morning after the "O" performance, I was back in the airport on my way home.  As I waited in a winding security queue, elevator music was playing from somewhere.  I wasn't quite awake, and I didn't pay much attention.  Then my heart started to ache in my chest, and I came to attention.  Looking around I spotted the source of the sound: monitors far across the concourse--monitors that were showing clips of "O" and playing the song Remous from the Bateau act.  A few seconds later a new advertisement came on, and the strains of "O" faded away, and my heart came back to me. It was a good way to say goodbye.

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Day at the Circus

“The finest of pleasures are always the unexpected ones.”
~ Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

When Delta’s servers crashed in August of last year, my flight was among the hundreds caught in the chaos and aftermath. Thanks to the training of a travel-savvy mother, plus the help of a wonderful (if slightly frazzled) Delta support agent, I managed to find a spot on a flight later that same day instead of having to wait two full days.  The catch was that it was a red-eye flight into Hartford, Connecticut instead of an afternoon flight to Albany, New York.  That was very preferable to having my visit to friends cut by two days, so I agreed to the itinerary and got myself a one-way, car rental—to drive myself a hundred miles to pick up my original rental car.  My original rental company gave me a prorated discount, which covered most of the one-way rental fee.  I missed a night in my friends’ guest room and breakfast in the morning, but I made it in time for lunch. We had plenty of time to hang out and catch up and still enough time at the end of my stay for me to play circus tourist. Really, I was one of the least inconvenienced person traveling Delta that week.  Things turned out alright.

At the time, of course, I had no idea that things wouldn't just work out ok, but that the mishap would gift me, more than a year later, a circus day that also had the tendency to turn out better than expected.  That story, that sequel, is what I want to share over my next few posts.

For my pain and suffering (which, admittedly, hadn't been that great), Delta gave me a voucher to defray the cost of future travel. I filed it away, and actually almost forgot about it. You can imagine my dismay when I wandered into my travel email folder and realized that my voucher would expire in less than a month. Expiring before any of the trips I had tentatively planned and also before the ultra-busy season at work was done.

In spite of the bad timing (which was, admittedly, completely my own fault), letting that much free money go to waste was unacceptable. On a whim, I booked a last-minute, one-day weekend trip to Vegas—my first ever overnight airline trip.

It was a trip I'd been considering for a while, ever since watching the film Worlds Away and seeing clips of the Cirque du Soleil’s “O” which is located in Vegas. I had been checking the list of performers at Circus Circus off and on, hoping for a wire walker—slack or tight—to round out the trip, but with an airline voucher fast expiring, I decided that it was better to go when the price was right than to wait for a performance roster that was absolutely ideal. The voucher very nearly covered the airfare, and I had a hotel certificate as well, so my only expenses would be my ticket to “O” and a Vegas buffet.

A short, uneventful flight (nap), a shuttle to my hotel, and an Uber to the Strip landed me at the doors of Circus Circus, tired but happy to have a whole afternoon of traditional circus acts as appetizers before the evening performance.

By the time I had taken my selfies at the entrance, made my way through the casino and up the circular ramp up to the second floor circus level, a show was about to start.  I was just in time to snag a standing spot to the side of the small open stage area that sits in the middle of the circus midway.

Iranian hand balancer, Hossein (Yosein-Chee) was the first act I saw, wowing with strength and precarious inversions (and the fabulous physique of an acrobat).

Even though hand balancing isn't one of the circus arts I've dabbled in (yet?) and I suspect even if (when?) I do, I will still prefer balancing on my feet, I loved the chance to see a professional acrobatics performance up close.  Hossein was a consummate showman.

When the act ended and the crowd dispersed into the Midway's carnival attractions, I wasn't certain what came next or even when.

A stage hand set an A-frame on the stage.

Next Show 1:15. Slack Wire.

I squinted across the darkened stage, not quite believing my luck.  For months I had looked and waited for a funambulist to come to Circus Circus. I had given up and come just because an airline voucher was expiring. I had glanced wishfully at the online roster of performers before leaving home—still no wire walker.  A piece of paper taped to a music stand by the miniature orchestra pit confirmed the billboard: Big Bear Lan of the imperial Chinese acrobats would be performing on slack wire in fifteen minutes.

The tiered seats were empty, so I sat down in a front row seat, thinking that I would settle in and save myself a good spot.  I got up again almost immediately—there was no way I was sitting still on a hard bench so very far away (twenty feet) when I could lean my elbows against the half wall right at the back of the small stage—no backstage pass necessary to watch the stage crew in between performances or the performers warming up.  That suited me perfectly.

A stagehand saw my odd plop-down-spring-up routine and asked if everything was alright. It was better than alright, but I had a hard time explaining just how fascinating it was to watch her and the other stagehand put used props in a plastic laundry bin and lay out the slack wire rigging on the stage floor. I was similarly tongue tied a little while later when I was taking pictures of the rigging—poles, joints, lock pins, snap links, anchor bolts, and wires—and a security guard wandered over and very kindly informed me that it would be more impressive when it was set up. They quickly got used to me being a fixture in between acts, and I had fun seeing a little bit behind the scenes—and I have some good ideas for designing collapsible slack wire A-frames now should the need arise.

The security guard was right though, the rigging was far more impressive after Big Bear Lan came out and finished setting up.  My slackrope is generally only rigged as high up on a tree as I can reach and tensioned so that the rope is only a few inches off the ground at the center.  The height of the professional rig both at center and at the anchor points was impressive.

What surprised me most though was how much more intimidating the simple frame made it seem.  There was a lot more nothingness to contend with than with a rope wrapped around a solid tree trunk.

Once Lan mounted the wire, my attention and emotions were divided—between a simple spectator's awe and enjoyment, and a technician's desire to understand how to do it myself. Which of the two thought processes predominated depended primarily on whether Lan was on his feet or upside down. While he was on his feet, my thoughts were, "hey, I can kind of do that!" or "ooh, I want to learn how to do that!"

His act had a lot of hand-balancing though, and for as long as he was upside down, I had no point of reference in my own training, so all I could think was, "wow."  His inversion tricks definitely deserved a wow.

While the ladder was probably my favorite, the other most impressive section of his act was when he went from headstand (which I hadn't ever considered possible) to a handstand...and then a one arm handstand!  Apologies in advance for the camera shake—I was watching the performance more than video equipment—but even my very bad videography skills can't negate how impressive that flow of tricks was:

After the slack wire performance, there were clowning, aerial straps, and trapeze acts.   I enjoyed them all, and I loved the chance to see professional performances up close.  I was always careful to stake out a seat or standing spot absolutely closest to the action.  I stuck around long enough to see all of the acts twice (especially my special gift slack wire performance), and then it was time to move on to my next circus destination: the Bellagio hotel and casino.  "O" had more pleasant surprises for me, but that's a story for another day.

Friday, September 30, 2016

A Circus Tourist: New England Center for the Circus Arts

“We teach the heart first and the body second, and teach that determination, hard work & team building can lead to healthier & happier bodies for everyday life, as well as how to be a skillful artist & athlete.”
~Mission Statement, New England Center for the Circus Arts

Only a handful of circus schools in the U.S. teach tight wire. In the past few years I've fit two of them into my travels: The School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) in Seattle, and Circus Warehouse in Long Island City. This summer I added a third to the list: The New England Center for the Circus Arts (NECCA) in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Being from the west, I’m used to states that can take a day (sometimes more) to drive across. So I was surprised and delighted to discover that the friends I visit every year, in spite of living on the opposite side of Vermont, are actually only an hour and a half from NECCA. This year my friends let me extend my visit a few days so I could commute across the Green Mountain State for circus classes.

Hogback Mountain Summit Viewpoint
Being from the west I was as impressed by all
this green as I was by the short commute.

From the summit of Hogback Mountain, with its spectacular views of the vast green expanses that give Vermont its nickname, I descended into Brattleboro. Down by the river that divides Vermont and New Hampshire is the main NECCA campus—studios and office spaces housed in what used to be a cotton mill.

The building is old and industrial, but the spaces have adapted well for their current use, with large rooms, light brick and wood floors and high windows that create a sense of openness. In the studios, ropes and fabric drape from the ceilings to wall hooks, waiting to be released, and mounds of folding mats stand ready as extra padding when needed.

Walking into NECCA wasn't like walking into a live Cirque du Soleil performance any more than attending a barre class is like finding oneself center stage in the Nutcracker’s Waltz of the Snowflakes. The best adjective I could find to describe NECCA was “ordinary” and that is what makes it extraordinary and appealing. It wasn’t the building, the functional practice spaces, or the lack of stage lighting and costumes, it was the atmosphere: to the people that walk the halls of NECCA, circus is the ordinary. Here the heart of the circus resides, where it lives for more than a weekend before rolling out of town again.

One of the Center’s founders, Elsie Smith, had been kind enough to arrange four private lessons with various NECCA coaches over the course of two days, two on wire and two to try other circus disciplines: Chinese pole and fabric (aerial silk).

The lessons were impressively professional. Each coach quickly assessed, then tailored their instruction to, my specific strengths and weaknesses. Each lesson focused on safety and fundamental techniques and each ended with guided stretching and calisthenics tailored to the discipline—to perform on that apparatus and to prevent the injuries and imbalances common to that work.

At the other schools, as a visiting circus tourist, the lessons I could arrange were with the schools’ senior students. At NECCA, I had the opportunity for the first time to work with experienced coaches who were themselves established professional performers. For all I learned in those lessons, the coaches themselves made the biggest impression.

My first lesson was with Elsie on wire. Elsie I liked on sight. She has a down-to-earth air of authority and quiet competence. She also had intelligent and analytical explanations that matched my learning style.

After a quick intro, Elsie got right down to the nitty-gritty of posture and balance, covering everything from the soles of my feet to the crown of my head: foot balance, knee alignment, thigh and hip flexor activation, pelvic and rib position, shoulder blade engagement, arm counterbalancing, etc. I won’t run out of things to focus on any time soon.

One of my goals for this visit was to find out about the Center’s summer performance bootcamp. Much to my delight, Elsie thinks I could be ready as soon as next year if I invest in some focused preparation. As a first attempt at a performance piece, my goals would be very modest compared to participants coming to refine their Cirque du Soleil audition pieces. But the videos required for bootcamp applications are used in part to ascertain simply whether the applicants are fit enough for the three weeks of intensive circus training. I understood that concern in the (sore) days that followed my visit.

My second class was Chinese pole with Bill Forchion. Bill fills a room: he’s a tall man whose strength is obvious, but with his big biceps, goes a bigger smile and an even bigger heart.

After finding me a pair of loaner shoes and asking me what I hoped to learn, he looked to me and said, “Let me see you climb the pole.” I gaped in astonishment—I had expected…something…before being allowed ten or twelve feet off the ground. He chuckled, but his tone was authoritative, “Climb. Climb to the top. I want to see what you can do.” I hesitated for another second with scrunched eyebrows and sweaty palms before shrugging and clambering carefully to the top and back down again.

Something about pole brings out my insecurities. The heights on a rigid pole seem scarier than on fabric that can wrap, tie, and twist. I also have some girly doubts about my upper body strength and pole seems to require just that. In Bill’s class, I wasn’t getting away with limiting myself. After I'd performed a move and descended back to the ground and looked to him for feedback, he laughed and scolded, “Don’t look to me for approval. You’ll know when it’s a non-approving moment. You’ll be flat on your back on the mat.” Fair enough.

Not only did I more than accomplish my modest goal of a one-leg sit, but even managed to invert on my own as well:

At the end of the lesson, Bill told me, with a straight face as intimidating as his grin is heartwarming, that even though I had paid the school for my lesson, I still had to pay him. While I tried not to look too taken aback, that big white-toothed smile snuck out and he continued, “I’ll give you a choice: hug or handshake.” I opted for the hug—a hug that took my feet well off the ground.

Back at home base that evening, I did my best to make my friends jealous with stories of my adventures. It worked, and NECCA was kind enough to amend the schedule even on short notice to include my 12-year-old friend in the fabric lesson the next day. For this post, my tween circus accomplice has chosen to go by “FireQueen”—which nom de guerre and choice of elements, in my opinion, suits her vibrant, imaginative personality as well as it does her hair. I think my fiery friend had plenty of fun, and having her along was great for me: I had company for the drive, a warm up partner on arrival, a photographer during the short tight wire lesson, a student-buddy for the aerial fabric lesson, a snack server for the drive back, and, best of all, someone to share the experience with.

That second day was fun, though less in-depth. FireQueen and I were the first arrivals. After she and I had warmed up on the mats in the still-quiet studio, Aimee Hancock, my instructor for the second, shorter wire lesson, breezed in with casual poise and Bohemian harem pants. Not even an exuberant 12-year-old photographer could distract Aimee from her focused and sympathetic instruction.

For that lesson, in addition to additional postural corrections, I got to work through the components for half turns—which someday I hope will graduate to crisp and impressive full turning twirls. All too quickly, my muscles were shaky and the half hour was up.

Along with finding out about the performance boot camp, another goal for this visit was to test out my shoulders. Even though they’ve been doing better, it’s been enervating worrying that I could be permanently limited. Aimee and Elsie’s reactions were very reassuring—they both responded along the lines of “but of course.” Apparently overhead freehand balance work causing shoulder discomfort is quite normal and both had stretches and exercises for it.

Last for the circus sampler was the shared fabric lesson taught by Kristen Mass. She had the challenge of teaching to two different ages and skill sets—young and old, figure skater and climber. I was impressed with how she added variations on the same skills to match our strengths and skill levels. Hers was the most hands-on lesson in terms of demonstration. Her execution of those simple moves were beautifully graceful while technically precise—very much worthy of FireQueen’s spontaneous applause.

A major difference between beginner aerials and beginner equilibristics is ego accomplishments: there are few to none for equilibristics. On wire, consistently walking across a 15-foot span without falling is the reward of practice and experience. Then there’s pole or fabric—with a little help, on a very first lesson, a student could very possibly climb to the top, tie themselves up in knots, and flip upside down.

After two days, three and a half hours of instruction, four coaches, and three apparatuses, it was time to return my 12-year-old circus buddy to her parents (egg her on in making them jealous too), pack my things, say goodbye, and head to the airport. The flight gave me a few hours to sleep off at least a little bit of the soreness.

My time at NECCA gave me new techniques to practice, and skills to master, stretches and flexibility to work. Most important, I have a concrete goal to work toward: performance bootcamp. It’s exciting that I (nearly) have the foundationl to begin working toward some modest level of performance skill. I’m still adjusting to the idea actually—I’m one of those bizarre individuals whom opportunities scare—sometimes more than a little. I’m working hard not to be overwhelmed by all the hard work I’d like to put in to prepare.

Even though I was only there as a circus tourist, it had been thrilling to be inside a professional circus school, in rooms full of circus apparatus, with professional performers as coaches—a place where circus magic is incubated. I came as a two-day visitor, I left wanting to be more.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Foot Focused

“The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about feet lately. … It’s not actually as weird and disturbing as it sounds. It’s been sandal weather so I’ve been seeing more of my feet, plus I’ve been pushing myself in ballet and the resulting aches and pains have kept me of aware of my lower extremities.

The foot focus intensified one day when I abandoned my deskwork for a short sunshine break. Even though I generally wear sandals or minimalist shoes, I realized it had been a long time since I’d gone barefoot except on slackline or around the house. On a whim, I kicked off my thin sandals and began walking. The sensations of walking barefoot after being shod for so long were revelatory: “Oh yeah, that’s what lush, cool grass feels like.” “Oh yeah, that’s what smooth, warm concrete feels like.” … and, “Oh, owww, that’s what gravel feels like.”

From then on, my morning meanders were barefoot for as far as my uncallused feet would take me. Connecting with the ground felt really, really good. I was surprised how much.

Next even my balancing became foot-focused. In the past concentrating, on the vertical posture line or the horizontal heart pathway have lead to breakthroughs. Lately neither has worked. I’ve felt wobbly; I’ve felt frustrated.

Finally I found my balance in focusing on the soles of my feet. My balance flowed when I focused on the pressure along the bottoms of my feet where I actually connect with the line or pipe.

Feet, feet, feet. Summer feet, sore feet, bare feet, balance feet.

When a theme emerges so obviously in my life, I have to wonder why. Why was going barefoot so important?  My other balance strategies had their own life applications, so what deep and hidden meaning could a foot fixation hold?

As soon as I wondered it, an answer sprang to mind—an answer which, to be honest, I didn’t much like: just like my feet in their shoes had missed feeling the world directly, I’ve been living more in my head than my heart.  “Disconnected” was the word that came to mind.

Just like I need to remember what grass and stones, damp and dry feel like, I need to truly experience empathy and amusement, tired satisfaction and sparkling elation, serene joy and cleansing sorrow.  Feeling doesn't prevent progress, it's a necessary part of the equation.  If "the foot feels the foot when it feels the ground," then perhaps I come to know myself as I feel life. The varied surfaces of life certainly provide ample opportunity.

Taking my feet out of their shoes is easy compared to getting out of my own head. Perhaps, like in balancing, the answer is as simple as it is difficult: staying focused on it.

Feet apparently have a lot in common with deep inner feelings.  Who knew?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Dixie Willson—Where the World Folds Up At Night

I had faced down those dreams and intended to forget them … But sometimes there are things you are willing to forget, which, nevertheless, will not be forgotten! And after a little while I had begun to find that my dreams were more real to me than life.
~Where the World Folds Up at Night, Dixie Willson, 1932, p. 23

Just twenty pages into Dixie Willson’s circus memoire, I was very certain that I was going to like this endearingly ardent Midwest debutante turned circus performer turned novelist. The feeling only deepened as I became acquainted with, if only through yellowed and musty pages, a kindred spirit who also had dreams that would not be forgotten.

It was while researching Bird Millman, that the archive librarian in Colorado sent me excerpts of Where the World Folds Up at Night. Reading what Dixie Willson had written about her dear, dancing highwire friend, I grew as interested in the author as her subject—an author whose career in children and young adult literature took off during her time with the circus.

Dixie Willson today is not nearly as famous as I think she deserves to be, so her books can be hard to come by. Luckily there were a few libraries around the country willing to loan me their nearly hundred-year-old volumes. Soon I had in my possession creaky, canvas-bound tomes, their uneven pages feather-soft from countless thumbings, their tattered library card stamps detailing four generations of reading.

The novels Little Texas and A Mystery in Spangles were light, happy circophile fiction. Having to return Where the World Folds Up at Night though was so heart-wrenching that I eventually found and purchased my own antique copy—one that, I found out later, had been retired from Dixie Willson’s hometown library.

If you’re not particularly interested in the golden era of train-traveling circuses, I’ll warn you now that this is my longest blog post to date, so you may wish to skim or skip to the end. But if you want to feed the fantasy of running away to join the circus, I would like to share the highlights of Dixie’s memoire. She didn’t write of the well publicized tragedies and triumphs in the ring, but rather of the scenes and scenery behind the curtains and beyond the show tent, the unique microcosm, which each night packed up and traveled on—because, in her own words,
In this story of the glamorous unreal (yet so real) little world, I have wanted to tell the things you do not know. … My hope is to bring you a sense of just nomadic, happy circus days and nights, sunny mornings, busy afternoons, gentle twilights. (p. 62)
Dixie Willson came from a respectable, well-to-do Midwestern family. While other girls her age were settling into marriages, she joined the first wave rebellion of the Roaring Twenties, and pursued her childhood dream to “join out” with the circus. Serendipity landed her an interview with Charles Ringling—Mr. Charlie—himself. With a little persuasion, he agreed to grant her citizenship in the backstage world of the 1921 Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Great Combined Shows.
And so I came to the circus back door, a kaleidoscope, it seemed, of a thousand sectors! Tents of every shape and size; a troupe in pink tights and jeweled collars; a boy toreador with a dozen yapping poodles on scarlet leashes; … the Queen of Egypt wrapped in gold veils swaying solemnly by on a camel; floats glaring under the white sun; working men bringing, taking, moving, shifting, meaningless pedestals and hoops and wheels and baskets. (p.12)
If Dixie’s first impressions of circus life resembled a kaleidoscope, so too does her narrative as she flashes from one scene to the next. While it begins as she joins out and ends on the last day of the season, through the middle I frequently lost track entirely of the route her pleasant memory meanderings had taken. In deference to modern readers’ desire for (relative!) brevity and linear narratives, I’ll try to put together a few highlights following Dixie through her typical circus day.

A circus performer’s day began waking up in curtained bunks, the train still barreling along. After a turn in the washroom, as the train pulled in, it was time to disembark and trek to the showgrounds, or “lot” as it was called.

Naturally, food was next on the morning priority list. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served in the cookhouse, whenever the white flag with “Hotel” written in blue was flying. Waiters were attired in white coats, ready to pass inspection by the most fastidious of maĆ®tre des. Gentlemen were required to wear coats, ladies required to wear better than everyday housedresses. (p. 16-17) The food and etiquette remained constant as the scenery accompanying the meal constantly changed:
Sometimes your feet are on baked yellow dust, sometimes on a carpet of wild violets; sometimes you are wearing rubber boots and a slicker, the table in a puddle halfway to your knees. But it is all the same. The mint sauce comes up just as properly with the lamb, the potatoes are just as brown, and everybody just as happy. (p. 56)
"Twenty-Four Hour Men" had already come through the day before to plaster the town with fliers.  Still, one of the first orders of business for the circus was to even more thoroughly announce its arrival. The morning main street parades were extensive: riders on horses, decorated carriages, wagons with wild animals. Crowds lined the streets waving and cheering, but like the most stoic imperial guards and proper British footmen, the performers kept resolutely in character, knowing they would be fined for looking at anyone in the crowd as they passed. (p. 44).

As a new performer with no specific skill set, Dixie was hired to be one of the hundreds of “bit” performers. In parade she made up the ranks of the red, white, and blue section of cavalry. Luckily her horse knew well enough what to do, because Dixie had never actually ridden before. Later, when another performer broke her arm, Dixie would take a turn as Cleopatra in a golden wagon drawn by eight camels, reclining on pillows and singing and playing popular tunes on an electric piano keyboard built into the golden floor (p. 89). Twice she also had the honor of leading the parade alongside the equestrian director.
My most vivid memory of Chicago is parade, as I saw it there. …again I remounted the blue-eyed horse…ahead of the first section. … Since I was first, I was first to break line and cross the bridge [onto the island and into Grant Park where the circus sat on the banks of Lake Michigan]. But instead of going on to the pad-room, I stopped and looked back. And saw, coming down two miles of that avenue, two miles of parade. … A two-mile ribbon of a thousand colors! (p. 125-126)
Preparation before and downtime between parade, matinee, and evening show would be spent on the “back lot”—the showground behind the public areas. With the sleeper cars on some distant switchyard during the day, the dressing room contained a performers’ small square of personal real estate: two buckets of water, a chair, and a trunk.
A hybrid combination, the ladies’ dressing room of the fantastic and the domestic. Side walls fluttering with bright, light sparkling skirts and gay, iridescent bodices; … and in the shadow of this, the busy laundry buckets, the ironing, the baby tending; a lady in calico and kid curlers solemnly fitting a Sunday silk; … someone resplendent in the flags of all nations busy getting buttons sewed on their husband’s shirt and exchanging apple pie recipes with somebody else standing in a bath bucket clothed in soap suds. (p. 38)
Like the cookhouse, the backdrop of the dressing tent and back lot was ever changing.
At the lot maybe you will find cowslips growing by your trunk, a brook babbling behind the padroom. Maybe your day is spent among the seared weeds of a vacant square in a city, your trunk balancing uncertainly across the broken cement blocks and cinders of some discarded sidewalk. Perhaps dressing-tent and big top are crowded against a row of bungalow porches, or maybe you find yourself in some whispering, surprised little grove, protesting acorns tapping all day on the roof. (p. 84)
Both the matinee and evening performances under the big top began with “spec”—the grand opening spectacle or “entry” parade—that circled the big top. For this, Dixie dressed as harem girl in yellow satin trousers and jeweled veils and rode in a howdah on an elephant named Fanny. Interestingly enough, Fanny had a lot to do with Dixie’s literary success.
I looked for a place I could be quite alone—and found it in the howdah of my elephant, when I mounted early for tournament. … Always afterward when any one would speak of this story or that one of mine which they had read somewhere…I would smile to myself and feel again the hard little wooden seat of that rocking, shifting howdah, a blistering sun beating down upon my spangle-dressed back; … [Writing a climactic scene in the story] would be interrupted by the equestrian director’s whistle, the back door would fling open, the band would begin, and I would put my paper and pencil on the floor, arrange my hands along the gold lotus lilies carved along the sides of my howdah, and we would swing into the big top, my feet carefully on the story so as not to lose the sheets of it. [p. 49-50]
Those climactic scenes she so jealously guarded with a satin-slippered foot were not about the circus at all. Though Dixie wanted desperately “to capture the heart throbs, the humor, the fantasy, the nobility, and most of all the simplicity,” of life in the circus, while she was living in the midst of that “riotous bazaar,” it was “too vibrant, too pulsating, too brilliant” to capture in words (p. 48-49). So she wrote instead stories of Russia peasant girls and pants-wearing puppies named Pinky…and she got them published.

Dixie had no complaints when Charles Ringling had asked if she would be willing to parade on horses and elephants. Surrounded by some of the best acrobats and performers of the 20th century, Dixie was soon ambitious to be more than another body in the grand spectacles.
I was feverishly eager to be part of everything. I wanted to swing from the highest trapeze. I wanted to enter the cage of the fiercest lion. I wanted to try my mettle and measure my grit with the rest. I wanted to fit into a place where that steady fearlessness and never-failing courage would be required of me too. If a disregard, a contempt, for the white feather were the only thing the circus has taught me, I should consider it, for that alone, a magnificent association. (p. 99)
Dixie wasn’t the only bit performer that season ambitious to learn. For the next season’s opening act, Mr. Charlie wanted the ceiling of the big top decorated as a human chandelier, filled with dainty, dangling, sparkling iron jaw performers—and he had offered a salary bonus. Many of the women who had bit parts so they could accompany their husbands began training to hang by their teeth from the top of the tent. During the afternoon practice time in between shows, in the deserted big top there would be groups of men who, after having hoisted their pretty wives up “three or four or ten or twenty feet” off the ground and set the rigging ropes swaying, would sit lounging, smoking cigarettes and chatting, keeping one eye trained on their wives, waiting for the signal to lower them back to the ground. (p. 106-108)

Dixie did not join the afternoon iron-jaw epidemic. Her restless ambition found an outlet when the “boss elephant man” took her aside to try her out “working the bulls.” For three weeks she learned “style” and handling, while the elephants, keen to return to where eager children fed them peanuts, hurried through their routines.
[A]t last, one day, the girls crowded around the back door to watch me go in, riding the rocky valley of Java's head with all the dash my shaking legs and arms could muster! In eleven minutes it was over, and I was back in the dressing room, hot and cold… Without disaster and in fact with a certain appearance of ease, I had presented an act of trained elephants … I had thrilled to the flash of my spangles in the light, to the feel of that spongy sawdust under my new yellow boots; I had felt a consuming pride in riding a saluting exit, swinging in the crook of Java's up-raised trunk; but best of all was the steadily rising lump on my head—the gentle side-swipe I had received … as [Java] had given me a subtle reminder with the natural baseball which finishes every elephant's tail, that I was at one end of him when I was expected at the other! (p. 100-101)

After the last show of the day came the trek from the lot back to the railyard. The cars had been moved since morning, so flares were set up along the way to guide performers to their section.
Across the stretch of dark, others were coming “home” too, shadowy figures in two’s and three’s. Nothing dramatic, nothing spectacular; just people quietly coming home. Yet it set my heart racing. The very lack of drama in a thing so fantastic was drama. The simple thing of those people crossing that border of dark from the lot to the show train; murmur of voices; chairs gathered around outside the cars; panels of pale light under the windows. (76)
Train porters had come through while the performers were away. After dusting and tidying, they tied back the aisle curtains, so the performers returned to sun warmed and aired sleeping quarters each night. Dixie loved her four feet by six of Car 91.
I found I could forget everybody in the car, when I chose, and pile up my pillows, close the dark green curtains between myself and the aisle, and read or write or sew, the train traveling maybe, standing along a country lane maybe, or maybe in the bustling railroad station of a city, which last was always a little exciting. It always gave me a delightful superior feeling to look out of my rose-colored nest at travelers hurrying on and off trains… (p. 81)
And while she lounged or slept in her bunk, the train rumbled on. The travel was simply part of life.
Perhaps [people] think it is hard to move from one hundred to three hundred miles every day. But of moving, except the changing interest, you are not even conscious. Both in the cars and at the lot everything is quite the same in Illinois in the morning as you left it in Indiana the night before; exactly the same in little Chico, California, in September as it was in New York City in March! … It would, of course, be a luckless life for those who cannot sleep on a train. The circus performer’s difficulty along that line comes on Sunday, when we have already arrived in Monday’s town, and most of the night is spent in a vain effort to sleep without that motion, that singing hum of traveling wheels which come to be a lullaby. (p. 82)
And so ended a circus day as it had begun: with the lullaby of train on track.

Throughout the book, what struck me most was how Dixie reveled in and vividly captured the picturesque in everyday circus life. Not every inhabitant of the traveling cavalcade saw life as Dixie did. Even Mr. Charlie Ringling, who “loved so many simple things which men of less conspicuous success pass by” (p. 9), at times saw a life of “[h]ot, dusty working days and mud holes and railroad tracks” (p. 195). In Dixie’s reply to Mr. Charlie and his to her, we find the real gift of her book:
I shall never forget Mr. Charlie’s answer that day, when I told him how little I had been aware of heat or dust or mud or cinder tracks. He looked at me a long minute and gradually over his face came a little smile. “The only measure a man can have for life is the size of the windows through which he looks at it. I am sorry to think I have been caught looking through little windows”. (p. 195-196)

From Dixie I was reminded of the powerful everyday magic radiating from simply loving life.
May we remember to look at the world through wide windows.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Snow Day

“When there’s snow on the ground, I like to pretend I’m walking on clouds.”
~ Unknown

There is a serene, hushed beauty in the winter expanses of pure, undisturbed snow. While forging through such snow, then turning back to admire the winter path I’ve created has it’s appeal, I often feel a little bit sad that never again and for no one else will it lie perfectly like it did before I left my footsteps—at least until the next storm. This past weekend I tried something a little different: walking above an expanse of undisturbed snow, doing my best to keep it pristine, so that it looked like I was hardly there at all.

Last month I posted that I’ve been striving to embrace the season more. According to a quite talented, but sadly unidentified epigrammatist, “To appreciate the beauty of a snow flake, it is necessary to stand out in the cold.“ Well, last Saturday the snow was deep, the day was a lovely mid-winter warm (33 degrees), the sun was shining through hazy skies, and my slackline withdrawal had reached unacceptable levels, so I decided to risk face-planting in the wet white and set up my slackline.

The cold necessitated some extra preparation and gear: a pair of Zemgear minimalist slippers and a white Tyvek ground cloth for a changing and staging area.

Of course, the photographer in me wanted a photo op, and I had to get creative to find angles and shots in the snow. I got really adept at finding unusual locations for my flexi-mini tripod, setting the time delay on my camera, clomping along at a gallop in my winter boots (made overlarge by the lack of thick socks), kicking off said oversized boots at the edge of my ground cloth, hopping into my slippers, and clambering up onto the line in time for my selfies. Once my camera had done its work, I’d cross a few more times till I was tired, hop down onto the tarp, slide back into my boots, and check to see if any of my shots had turned out. Reposition, reset, and repeat. Yes, yes, obsessed photographer. That’s me.

All in all, the snowline was a lot of fun. Being outside in the sunshine and crisp breezes was delightful. Like the waterline, the presence of snow (and my desire to stay out of it) added a level of mental challenge that I had not anticipated. Though my first several Chongo mounts were aborted, I found my rhythm in spite of wobbles and only fell off once—no face plant, just straight up to my knees after a shaky mount.

Other than the trails at the edges for setup and the ground cloth area for mounts and dismounts, (and those two leg holes), I managed to keep the snow around the middle of the line pristine and unbroken.

Rope walking often allows me to feel like I'm walking through the sky, and certainly adding a sleek blanket of deep snow added to the illusion of walking on the clouds.