Ropes hang from high vaulted ceilings and stained glass tints the light. Here in a former Cardiff Church, the circus lives. It moves around from time to time, but always feels like home. This is the circus that I’ve been running away with for the best part of a decade.
Look behind a certain black door on a weeknight in the city and you’ll find us – the enthusiasts – learning everything from hula hoop to acrobatics. Dropping our everyday lives like disguises.
We are all different, some of us are parents, professionals or students. What we have in common is a serious case of circus fever. Whatever your reasons for coming, once you’re here, the circus becomes part of you. It’s hard to go back to the way you were. It’s hard to go back to just watching.
Like all the best tricks, when I first saw a contemporary circus show back in 2008 I was star-struck and curious. A new kind of beauty in a silver tent, touring a sleepy Somerset town. No animals, scary clowns or even much colour. A black and white riot of shabby glamour, dark arts beneath a big top.
The Guardian once described No Fit State Circus as “Cirque du Soleil without the Disney and disinfectant” and I have to agree. The shows are all the more beautiful for a bit of grit.
That was that. The circus stuck with me that summer like glitter on warm skin.
A move to Wales and a year later, I found myself at my first No Fit State Circus community class learning static trapeze.
I had no clue what I’d let myself in for. After a few months I finally wiggled up on to a trapeze bar by myself for the first time. Later I held my own body weight in the air for a few seconds. Bit by bit, wobbles became balances. Then balances became spinning round the bar head first.
Nearly a decade on I’m certainly no elegant trapeze artist, but I’m proud of what I’ve learnt and what my circus body can do given a bit of time and effort. Here’s what I love most about my weekly disappearing act.
Learning to fly, sort of.
I can’t resist aerial acts. Those big circus numbers in the air that you watch with your heart smashing a hole in your chest. There are different kinds, but static trapeze (where the trapeze is mostly still) is where I hang out between the floor and the ceiling for a little while. Not strictly flying exactly, but somewhere close.
Dancing a bit differently.
I’ve spent most of my life avoiding anything to do with dance, with good reason. I’ve never been able to tell left from right without thinking. Hanging upside down on a steel bar between two bits of rope is as close to coordinated as I get.
fear pain but doing it anyway.
There’s no getting round it. Yes there’s a bit of pain. No you don’t need upper body strength to start with. Yes your legs and arms will be marked for the rest of your days but for all the hype, the pain doesn’t matter much.
The speckled shins, the red rope burns on your inner arms are well-earned circus tattoos, but they are just part of the story.
Tips from the (big) top.
I’ve been lucky to have brilliant teachers over the years, talented people from all over the world. An experience here, a circus secret there. History, geography and art in one. There is always something to learn from these super talented guys.
New world, new words.
Skin the cat. Hocks. Beats. The language of trapeze is tricky thing to pin down, but it’s fun to try. Moves you know well become strangers with a new name. Your circus vocabulary grows wider and wilder as teachers come and go.
Circus freaks have your back.
And your legs, head and any other body part looking slightly wonky in the air. Unsurprisingly, you make friends quickly here. Legs and arms mix and muddle. There’s nothing like the fear of falling on your arse to bond you to strangers. Stories are swapped. People leave, people come home.
There will always be someone to share it with; the circus is never silent for long. The show goes on. We fall, we fail, we get back up. We keep coming back to this borrowed world, half real, half imagined.
Bewitched by sawdust and sequins too? Let me know!