First Person Singular: Trapeze Instructor Mandy Keithan

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My dad was a circus clown. My mom rode elephants. And they both stopped touring before I was born. I held a grudge for much of my young life because, in my head, I was born to be a circus kid. I would read all the circus kids books out there. We would go to the circus and see people my dad had worked with. Once you're in a circus, it's a family. Growing up, the American circus was just always a part of my life but never really a career option.

Seven years ago, a friend told me he had been taking trapeze classes in New York. They had a school in Baltimore. I was up there in no time. As soon as I'd landed on the net, I stood up because I was so excited and then, of course, fell right down. My second season there, I realized it was time for me to leave my job. I was the director of religious education at a Unitarian Universalist church, a fancy title meaning I ran a Sunday school. My husband knew the winds were changing when I started doing headstands on the arms of the couch.

With trapeze, it's not only about doing certain actions, but doing them at very specific times. Students need to be able to wait and listen and go right when we say. It's often the really big muscle-y guys who struggle so much at first because they want to use their muscles to make it happen right then. It's about learning when to ride the swing and when to work. Twenty-three feet up is a lot higher than most of us go in a day. Students cry on the platform almost every day because they're trying very hard to do something they want so badly and digging deep inside and touching that core place of "I can't." That's the amazing part for me: to take someone from terrified to capable.

I used to be into cute professional gear: lots of heels, lots of boots. That's all just rotting in my closet. I'm less willing to wear high heels because you can't play in them. Now I see the edge of a Jersey barrier and think: I can balance on that. Or I see a flat space and think: Time for handstands. The world is just a big playground, and I don't want to be wearing uncomfortable clothes that don't let me frolic in it.

Interview by Amanda Long

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