by Dave Cary
for The Beacon
For a lot of people, this is the Year of Something Else. Unable to do what they want but forced to do Something Else.
Kristin Smarelli, 28, of Plymouth, is one of many who have had to put their chosen careers on hold until the economy perks up — whenever that may be.
An accomplished circus aerial performer, Smarelli found circus-type events (and income) drying up rapidly as the Coronavirus left its mark across the country earlier this year, severely limiting the size of public gatherings to minimize its spread and closing many events.
Circuses have been troubled for many years — economic pressures took the Ringling Brothers out of business entirely and have reduced touring circuses to a minimal number. Animal cruelty issues have eliminated most of the big cats, bears, camels, and elephants that were once a dependable draw. Despite all this, insiders insist that the circus is not dead.
There are some sixty circus arts schools operating in the country. Adam Woolley, manager of one such school was quoted by Jeff Lunden in Learning English as saying the typical attitude among the would-be performers is:
“With lots of practice and hard work, we can accomplish the impossible. ‘I have dedicated my life to this seven minutes of performance and honed my skill to the place where I’m going to accomplish something in front of you now that you did not think could be done.’”
An attitude like this can probably go a long way.
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With two children besides herself to support, Smarelli had to look for something to survive.
Enter the local Johnson School Bus Service.
“I saw the sign about a $500 sign-on bonus and said ‘OK. I’ll see what happens,’ Smarelli said. She signed on.
“There was a lot of training. I hadn’t even looked under a hood much of my life and you have to learn a lot for both the pre-trip and driving tests. That was a challenge. But once I passed the tests and had driven a while they gave me the bonus. Not all at once but in four increments.”
“I like bus driving,” Smarelli said. “It’s interesting. “I used to have driving anxiety. I was even scared to drive a car very much before — I walked to stores. But not now.”
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Challenges are nothing new to Smarelli.
A dose of gymnastics in the Waukesha school system perhaps help point her toward getting into circus aerial work about five years ago.
“I had just had two kids. I was overweight and out of shape and wanted a way to exercise. Looking online, I found this place called Warped Studios in Sheboygan Falls — a small fitness shop that offered classes in a variety of things, including circus acrobatic skills.
Among other things, Warped had what are called ‘silks’ in the trade. “Actually, they are two long curtains that you can climb in and on and do splits and trapeeze-type things and wrap yourself up in,” said Smarelli. “You may have seen silks on Cirque du Soleil. I liked them immediately and started going to Warped Studios pretty much every day. Warped has expanded since, and through them I got fairly good at it, though it took a long time.”
“I started with silks but what eventually became my main thing was the Lyra. This is a big metal hoop — looks like a hanging hula hoop — that is free to swing and rotate. You can sit in it and take all sorts of positions and spin, do routines, tricks and acrobatics and all sorts of stuff way up in the air. I found being upside-down was pretty much fun — like I can put life on pause and just be myself.”
Either the silk or the Lyra are typically suspended fairly high off the ground. “Often there’s a rig holding you up, or you may be attached to points in a ceiling so they can pull you up real high, Smarelli said.” One of her practice sites has thirty-foot ceilings.
Smarelli said she had also taken some trapeze instruction. “You get partners on Trapeze doing flips and tricks and stuff like that but I’m more of a solo performer. In trapezes, you can have partners, but I prefer being a solo artist.”
“When you practice, you’re an acrobat up in the air, spinning and twirling and hanging upside down, developing a routine with music you’ve chosen and fitting it all to the apparatus. It’s kind of like a dance routine — and of course you then put in a sort of ‘shock’ or surprise at or near the end.
Smarelli progressed to becoming an instructor for the Lyra, besides performing herself.
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“Later on, I went to Anna Belle Aerial, a gym in New Berlin. They had a performing group I joined called Cream City Circus.
“We performed in lots of places.
“One of the most unusual was inside an actual cave up in Canada called Science North, where they set up a rig and we had a huge audience. It was for a New Years Eve event — actually my first professional performance. We got to do the silks and trapeze and things like that. It was freezing in that cave so we had to wear extra clothes because acrobats have to keep their muscles warm all the time.
“We also had a fun gig at the Chicago Tattoo Convention and there were others like the Aerialympics regionals in St. Louis, where I earned first place in the top regional tier. This is a national aerial fitness competition; I was happy with my results but I had lacked motivation because you know… the year 2020. I’m excited for the Aerialympic National finals which we have this January. I’ll be better prepared this time around.”
Developing routines is one part of the aerial picture that calls for creativity as well as physical work and practice. A lot of thought goes into it both in the air or on the ground. “I choose a song then work on a routine. Fit what comes to mind into a routine and keep going over it. In the air is where these ideas are really put to the test. The end result is kind of like a dance routine.”
Although performance dates have become thin due to Covid-19, Smarelli continues a regimen of practice against the day when things change.
“When things open up again I’ll be back out there,” she said. “I like driving bus but I cant wait to get back to performing.”
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One of the hazards of being an aerial acrobat is obvious. Injury.
“Yes, I have fallen. Once when I wasn’t too high but was hanging from the back of my knees I fell and was off for a little while.”
Falls, though, are not the only hazard.
“Another time, though, I was seriously injured. My arms had been back and I was flipping and flipping and flipping. I didn’t make one full rotation and a rib broke off at the top.
It is still floating; it is called thoracic outlet syndrome. Eventually I will have to have surgery but I am putting it off because once I have the operation, my acrobatic career may well be over. I feel lucky to have almost total mobility now.”
“But I’m always getting dinged,” she said, rolling a sleeve to reveal a hardball-sized upper arm bruise.
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Smarelli spends much of her off-time with her children, Fern, almost six and Archie, almost five.
Archie has a strong interest in Smarelli’s acrobatics. She says that although his form is limited, his strength is “amazing.” In an Instagram video clip she provides safety while Archie goes from being held by his mother to hanging from a Lyra by his toes with his head upside down in a couple of obviously practiced and developed moves.
Fern evidently does not have the same degree of interest. At least not yet.