When my daughter Ellie started performing, I would watch from the audience with my hands over my eyes. I would peek through tiny slits in my fingers—just enough space to see her dangle from a trapeze, or straddle-climb up the tissu, wind herself up in red silk, nod to her fellow performers, and unwind like a yo-yo to the ground.
I’ve seen many dramatic drops and fearless feats in my eleven years as an aerial circus mom. Now when I watch Ellie perform, my eyes are wide open and my hands are poised for applause. Settling into my circus audience seat became easy for me once I learned to trust and love circus people. I’ve had a lot of good instructors.
Our journey as a circus family began when seven-year-old Ellie refused to compete in a gymnastics meet. She had taken gymnastics classes since she was three years old, and at the time it seemed like the perfect activity for a kid who climbed out of her crib at eighteen months.
A good friend of mine suggested Ellie try Xelias Aerial Arts in Northeast Minneapolis. A circus school? I had never heard of it, but in the Twin Cities, we have two wonderful youth circus training venues. We chose and stayed with Xelias because of its intimate-yet-homespun training space headed up by two former Ringling employees and a staff of amazing aerialists. Ellie found immediate comfort there.
Meg Elias-Emery is Xelias’s director and founder. Meg preaches a very wise rule of not allowing anyone to view classes at Xelias. When Ellie started, I remember being a little put off by this rule. At the gymnastics studio, parents would watch every minute of class from an official viewing area. But Meg believes that parents and kids get too distracted, and distraction gets in the way of safety. Meg’s golden rule is “All eyes on my eyes”; this rule helps kids focus on the task at hand.
So, in my early years as an audience member, I covered my eyes because Ellie was performing skills I had never seen before. I had not yet learned to trust my circus people.
Several coaches at Xelias, including Meg, helped me grow into a more comfortable seat in the circus audience. These coaches were adults I admired for their sheer athleticism and for their ability to communicate and connect with Ellie. One time, after a class, I took one of her coaches aside, a heavily tattooed, super buff and quiet woman named Dakota. “Ellie really likes your class,” I told her. She looked into my eyes and said simply, “I really like Ellie.” For some reason, this moment has stuck with me for many years. Dakota saw and appreciated Ellie for who she was. As I got to know the Xelias staff, I learned to relax knowing Ellie was in good hands. Each instructor brought his or her own unique gift into Ellie’s training regime.
For many years, I participated in a carpool to drive a clown car of kids to Xelias classes from one side of Minneapolis to the other during rush hour. As any parent knows, you can learn a lot from the carpool banter—often more than your own kid would have shared. I grew to love these kids and their parents. I learned that the circus arts attract a unique, accepting, and creative crowd of people. Forming these close relationships helped me trust the art of circus, because I knew this community of performers and parents truly cared for each other. We all cheer for everyone equally, as it should be.
Finally, and most importantly, I learned to trust my daughter Ellie as a performer. Ellie has trained very hard to get to her current skill level. She has represented Xelias at many local gigs, she has attended advanced training camp at Circus Smirkus for three years; she has studied dance at a performing arts high school; she has taken yoga, contortion and hand balancing to improve her strength and flexibility; she has suffered hideous bruises and burns on her hands, arms and legs—all in the hopes of nailing a new trick on lyra, aerial silks or dance trapeze. Her hard work and dedication have taught me to relax both as an audience member and as a mother.
Xelias holds two showcase performances every year, spring and fall. This spring, Ellie will perform in her final Xelias showcase before her high school graduation and her next big adventure. I will be in the audience, with my hands poised for applause and grateful tears in my wide-open eyes. I’m certain this will not be my last circus show, because thanks to my trainers, I’ve learned to love being in the circus audience.
Ann Quiring lives and watches circus in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University, and she is currently writing a young adult novel with a circus setting. Ann wants to thank her husband, her family, and all her Xelias Aerial Arts people for being so awesome.