There was no one singular moment that finally persuaded me to give up my job as a high flying acrobat. During the 20 years I had been traveling around the world to perform high above a stage or ring there had been many challenges to deal with alongside the exhilaration of it all. Most of which I chose to ignore as I focused instead on the powerful feeling of accomplishment I got from performing, not to mention the obvious rush from having survived another day at the office and the intense camaraderie that develops while sharing the responsibility of keeping yourself in one piece with my performing partners. The best performances were the ones where I felt I had somehow shared a moment of intense emotion with the audience as if I had reminded them not to close the door to their dreams.
Even as I write this now I wonder what on earth is wrong with me – this is clearly a most unusual, privileged and fulfilling job and I have worked extremely hard for years to get to and maintain this level of skill. You might even be imagining a very romantic version of performing life and thinking that I am crazy to walk away from this opportunity. Certainly, there are many artists for whom that romantic vision is a reality. Somehow for me, it is not.
I still don’t know how my career didn’t live up to my ambitious yet naive dreams despite my fervent efforts. Looking back over the years, I wonder how I did not enjoy all this as much as I should have. Wasn’t I supposed to be having fun? And I did have fun at times. Many times. But there is a limit to how many times I can haul myself on stage with a raging fever and sick with the flu, or broken-hearted and exhausted after a night in Emergency having an early miscarriage, or numb and dangerously distracted after learning that a dear friend had just been killed in a traffic accident, before those good times fail to pull you through.
Those are among the more extreme examples. The more mundane irritants such as staying up all night comforting a child sick with a virulent case of the stomach flu, in a caravan in the middle of winter with no running water because the hoses had all frozen, and 3 shows to do the next day, or trying not to faint from heat exhaustion as you climb up your apparatus to perform your act during the intense sauna-like summertime heat in a tent that reeks of hot dogs, were part of the job description and too numerous to name. Don’t even get me started on the blue-lit faces in the front row that somehow didn’t hear the announcement requesting mobile phones to be switched off and who wouldn’t disconnect for even 5 minutes to watch me expend buckets of energy trying to persuade them to be fully present, as I had to be, so we could share this singular moment together.
I have performed with amazing groups of fellow artists for crowds ranging from 15,000 to 50. I have even won awards. And I think I have had enough. Circus has been a passion for so long that it is strange to feel it fading. As much as I am thankful for how it has enriched my life, I am starting to feel trapped. I have not managed to figure out another passion that seems financially viable or that calls to me incessantly as circus did. I was lucky the first time around. I KNEW circus was it. I was completely convinced and made it all happen. I walked away from a hard-earned university degree, a job offer in the industry of my degree and an acceptance to a masters program in order to become an acrobat.
So I suppose I figured a new passion would inevitably surface and started toying with the idea of a second career a few years ago as I became aware of my ever advancing age and my undeniable inability to continue defying gravity forever. At first, I gave myself time to figure it out. After 2 years I started to feel a certain amount of panic surrounding the question. What if I don’t have another passion? Maybe I should just count myself lucky to have been able to live my passion for 20 years and now it was time to turn to something practical that would allow me to plan for my old age or my kids’ future? Isn’t that what most people do?
The frustration with the endless search for a meaningful new career has left me with a sentiment somewhat approaching rage when I read motivational advice urging people to, “Do what you love” and everything will work out. Isn’t there a point in almost everyone’s life when they realize that this is all there is? That all of those dreams and aspirations are not going to come true? That some precious core dreams turn into nightmares and others seem to remain stubbornly just out of reach? Are hard work and dedication really always enough? That becoming an adult is a series of compromises and often a release of our childhood dreams?
By now I have dragged you into the spiralling whirlpool of despair and you are looking for a way out. So was I. The answer was a hoop. It had crept into my consciousness as I worked alongside an amazing hooper, watching her from the wings every night after my act, shifting my position constantly to be able to get a good vantage point without stage lights in my eyes. Upon my return home I found myself standing in the hardware store touching tubing and trying to figure out how to fashion a hoop. I brought a length of completely inappropriate tubing home, filed down a connector and dug through my art box for an old roll of sparkly decorative Christmas tape. That evening, after I got the kids to bed, I started hooping. Never mind that the poor thing flew apart 5 minutes into my session and I had to duct tape it back together.
I practised outside on my deck with the stars as my big top and the crickets as my audience. It was instant love. I hooped almost obsessively in the beginning, celebrating every new trick learned, delighted by the ability to depend only on myself until one evening the hoop smacked me in the nose while I was trying to learn foot hooping. I lay flat on the deck, tears flowing, nose aching, feeling ridiculous. I was never going to be a good hooper. I wasn’t as fluid, as skilled, as innovative, as enchanting, as pretty, as young. The hoop went into my closet.
I was still approaching hooping as an extension to my circus career. I was still living it from the point of view of creating a sellable act. And I was failing miserably at finding an answer to the question that kept coming to mind, “why would someone hire a beginner 48-year-old hooper instead of an experienced 25-year-old? Crickets.
A few weeks went by and I wallowed in my defeat, thinking that it had been a preposterous idea in the first place. The big bump on my nose went away and people stopped asking me what had happened to my face. The thing was, I missed my evening hooping sessions.
I decided that I would hoop without an agenda or a long-term goal. Just because. Just because it was fun. I watched hooping videos and was inspired by so many different styles, so many different bodies, so many different smiles. I couldn’t resist joining the circle of people who hoop because it brings them joy. I needed joy and I found a way to access it with a crappy plastic circle. I put away my requirement that this new activity would be my future circus career and was outside every evening, dripping with sweat, scaring away the wild boar until well past midnight. I would keep at it until I felt that I had actually achieved something purely for myself that day, something with no other purpose, something selfishly wonderful. It made me happy. It gave me hope. It swirled my stars. That was the beginning of the trade: finding a new way of bringing people hope, sparking the imagination and reaffirming their belief in the impossible. Becoming an extension of creativity and allowing myself to remember that mystery and wonder are as essential as broccoli and air. That is what performing had been all about to me. That is how I have served mankind for the last 20 years. And I am not at all done.
My name is Laura Smith and I am a professional acrobat.