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Release

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Jul. 27th, 2012 | 09:20 pm

“Three…

“Two…

“One…”

The brave twin counts down, her high, reedy voice cutting through Moves Like Jagger belting out of the sound system. I watch their ready positions, grateful to have had gymnasts to cast in the aerial silks act, part of my company’s circus residency at their high school, the quality of the routine and the level of the moves I can teach them raised incrementally by their pre-existing training.

On “Go!” three girls release, flinging their arms out to swan dive backwards, bodies arcing towards the floor headfirst, catching in the fabric wrapped around their ankles. Their parents, usually knitting or chatting softly in the auditorium during rehearsal, gasp and clap. The girls hang upside down while the brave twin counts again—I make a mental note to teach her to say “Ready—Hup!” and save three seconds each move—then swing back, sit up, grabbing first their own ankles, then the fabric above their feet, bending their knees and pushing their hips to kneel upright.

“Reach up, stand up, point, and it comes right off!” I call up, and three girls let their silks fall off their feet, rewrap their right legs (except the pretty twin, who is a lefty) and slide down to the mats.

I see the fourth girl out of the corner of my eye.

“Go get water and we’ll do it one more time in a minute,” I say, and the twins and Allie cross the stage towards the hall, stopping like storks to rub their ankles.

Kayla is still standing in the air. Her ankles are wrapped, her core is tight, her hands clutch the fabric in front of her sternum.

“You want a count?”

She shakes her head.

“You want to pike down?”

She shakes her head.

“Give me halfway,” I tell her, and she slides her butt down, her legs and torso making an L as her hands still grip the fabric. Her face is fixed.

“Ready?” I ask.

Her legs stay tight and her arms don’t bend, but her head drops, and she wipes her nose on her t-shirt sleeve.

“Let’s do it. Just once today. Then you can mark it.”

She won’t look at me, and she won’t let go. Finally, she bends her knees and sits in the kneeling position, weeping softly.

I hate making kids cry.

“Go get a drink of water,” I say, and Kayla unwraps, slides down and goes to the hall. The twins and Allie are back, chattering that ankle dives don’t hurt as much the second time, it’s like a ride at Cedar Point, freefall and a jerk. I say, “We’re going to add a Pfister, OK? It’s a lateral twist, just like on bars or a tumbling pass. First, let me see your flamenco hand to crucifix.”

I tell them about Bret Pfister, because lineage is important, and I tell them that when you do a double or a triple Pfister, there’s a moment every time, between the last no-hands twist in midair and the ankle catch, when you believe with all your heart you’re going to die. I tell them we’re going to do single Pfisters, that’s all we have the height for in this theatre. Kayla comes back from the water fountain and does the flamenco hand to crucifix on the ground with everyone else, then practices straddle-ups while the other girls do the move.

After rehearsal, the girls go put their warm-ups back on, and Kayla’s mother comes up to the stage.

Uh-oh.

“I hope you can get Kayla to let go.”

My prepared words about how sometimes circus training is a little stressful and please don’t sue me for making your daughter cry, please don’t take her out of the show, we’ll find her some different moves, are left behind.

Kayla’s mother is still talking.

“All the other girls—” she points to Allie who is fat for a gymnast, to the twins who are eighteen months from too tall, “—are in Level Seven. Kayla’s still in Five, because she needs a bars skill with a release and she can’t let go.”

“We’ll keep working on it,” I say, as Kayla comes back in her track pants and her perfect short, slim body and has absolutely heard her mother.

The next three days, we straddle up and split knot. We Rebecca and iron cross. And we ankle dive. The twins soar into Pfisters. Allie leans into the fabric with her armpit and claps her hands together overhead for a no-hold release. Kayla stands and cries.

I cajole, I reason, I give small steps. I shout, I bully, I get Communist.

I know she’s heard it all before.

I can tell by her back tucks in the group acrobatics number—she’s the only one brave enough to back tuck here in the school theatre without a sprung floor adding rebound—that her coach is good, that her coach has also reasoned and bullied and may well be an ex-Communist, because her form is good, and good form comes from Ukraine and Poland and China and other countries where you do your back tucks or your family doesn’t eat.

She will not let go.

She will weep for ten minutes, the other girls studiously ignoring her, they’ve seen it in the gym. She will “get a drink of water,” which is coach code for “pull yourself together” and gymnast code for “I need a minute”, come back, and weep ten minutes more.

Finally, I relent. I teach her another move, a smaller release, the fabric wrapped around her thighs, a forward rotation instead of a backwards freefall, no abrupt catch to crush the right shin, and we end a day with success. “Nice job, Kayla. No more ankle dives today, ladies, more than three in a row starts nerve damage.”

Kayla and I sit, near the end of practice, and I tell her, when I’m afraid of a move, I think about my favorite coach, I imagine her smiling up at me. I ask Kayla if there’s something reassuring she can think about. I tell her it’s important to do the move once, even if she hates it, because then it’s a choice not to do it again instead of the move beating her, kicking her ass, taking down her courage. I call out to my partner, “Hey, Spike—what do you think about when you do ankle dive?”

Spike yells from upside down in an aerial hoop, surrounded by girls learning birdsnests, “I think, ‘It’s been a good run!’”

Kayla picks up her water and drinks. She doesn’t say much. And then rehearsal is over.

I sit in the dark theatre and think about training in gymnastics gyms, about eight-year-olds in knee braces and sixteen-year-olds on their fourth surgery. I think about Béla Károlyi and the abuse that makes champions, the second vault that made Kerri Strug a post-Olympic endorsement heroine and trashed her ankle for life. A fair trade, I think, but I don’t know if I’d make it.

At the end of the second week, we do the show. And because this is life and not the movie I’d like to make of life, three girls ankle dive with a Pfister and one girl does a 360.

After the show, in the yellowy light from the ghost lamp, the naked bulb making sure no-one falls into the orchestra pit in the dark, I let down an aerial silk and climb it. I wrap. I stand, hands clutching the fabric by my sternum. Every fiber of my being says, don’t do it. Falling backwards, falling upside down, trusting I’ve wrapped right, trusting that the cheap trick, the easy, scary, audience-pleaser that works every time will work this time.

And that’s what I can’t tell Kayla.

I can’t let go either.



_______________________________________
whipchick loves coaching Starfish Circus more than any other job. This is an ankle dive with a Pfister.

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Comments {22}

Ellakite

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from: ellakite
date: Jul. 28th, 2012 05:32 am (UTC)
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Fear of falling is one of mankind's most basic, primal fears. Some have claimed that it is quite literally instinctive -- that it was hard-wired into our brains by our tree-dwelling ancestors... because any primate which *WASN'T* innately terrified of falling usually wouldn't survive long enough to pass on their genes.

It takes strength to face that fear. I *KNOW* -- I've personally watched a former Marine Corps sergeant who saw action in Desert Storm completely lose his shit when faced with a similar dilemma.

But as I've learned the hard way: If you don't face down your fears, they own you.

Thank you for sharing this.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 08:58 pm (UTC)
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Thanks - and I'm so glad you got so much from this piece.

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(Deleted comment)

Lose 10 Pounds of Ugly Fat...  Cut Off Your Head.

(no subject)

from: n3m3sis42
date: Aug. 3rd, 2012 01:16 am (UTC)
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Seriously. I'm only moderately afraid of heights and I don't think I could do what she did!

Whipchick, I really enjoyed this piece. Totally felt for Kayla.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 08:59 pm (UTC)
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Thanks - she's a tough kid, and it's so hard to watch her talent be undermined by her fear.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 08:58 pm (UTC)
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Thank you - she's an awesome girl, and I'm hoping to work with her again this year!

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Marina Petrano

Thanks Coach

from: marinasmagic
date: Jul. 29th, 2012 08:36 pm (UTC)
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I had to tell you teaching that move is brave. It's terrifying. I hate ankle dive. Hate! But thank goodness you cajole, reason, give small steps, shout, bully and get Communist. Thankfully you even taught chicken Marina to do it.

There was no plan to teach it in Ocala, but 2 of the kids already knew it (Thank you Alex!). Another 3 were determined to learn. They asked " Coach, can you do ankle dive?!?". Fear, panic, oh god. Later in the hotel Jess and I would laugh about how I could have said yes without doing it. Lesson learned. Instead I plastered on a big smile "Of course I can!". Praying to all the gods that smiling would hide my complete and utter terror from the kids I climbed, then wrapped. Every fiber of my being told me to chicken out, to climb down and kiss the earth between my feet.

"I can't" ran through my brain. Ankle dive was kicking my ass in front of my students. "Can't means won't".

I felt 14 kids faces, staring up at me , waiting. Me standing there with my big terrified smile, feeling the tears well up. And you know what happened next? I remembered you looking up at me in the gym, smiling with full confidence.

"Do it or come down" you said after 5 minutes of reasoning, my arms quickly weakening. "Do it or come down" The final straw. Deep breath and finally, release. Thank you for the patience coach. Without you I would have never let go. :)

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whipchick

Re: Thanks Coach

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 09:02 pm (UTC)
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I am more moved by this than I can say.

And so proud of you, as always.

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blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: Jul. 31st, 2012 04:54 am (UTC)
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Loved this. Thanks for adding the video!

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 09:02 pm (UTC)
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You're welcome, and I'm glad you liked it!

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shimmerdream

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from: shimmerdream
date: Jul. 31st, 2012 11:11 pm (UTC)
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I love this. I was watching the ladies gymnastics on TV today, and the stuff they can do is mindblowing.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 08:59 pm (UTC)
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Agreed! And the recipe that gets them there is not pretty...

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alycewilson

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from: alycewilson
date: Aug. 8th, 2012 07:47 pm (UTC)
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Wow. That ending really socked an emotional punch. This sort of thing has been on my mind a lot since watching the female gymnasts. How many of their moves could result in serious injury! And yet, they find a way to do it. Watching their faces before a routine is often very telling.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 09:00 pm (UTC)
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Thanks - yeah, we train in gymnastics gyms a lot, and there are some tough girls out there, working incredibly hard.

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notodette

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from: notodette
date: Aug. 9th, 2012 02:22 am (UTC)
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This is a great piece. I have no experience with these things and I was able to feel them vividly.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 09:00 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, I'm so glad I was able to communicate it!

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Release

from: anonymous
date: Aug. 10th, 2012 11:56 pm (UTC)
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Extraordinary...absolutely loved to the last word.

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whipchick

Re: Release

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 09:00 pm (UTC)
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Thank you :)

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Laura, aka "Ro Arwen"

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from: roina_arwen
date: Aug. 11th, 2012 08:17 pm (UTC)
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That sounds like an awesome job, and you wrote about it very vividly - the kids are lucky to have you!

Also, I see on the Starfish staff info that you have done the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival? I live in KY, so if you're up this way again drop me a line - maybe we can meet up. :)

Edited at 2012-08-12 02:05 pm (UTC)

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 09:01 pm (UTC)
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Totally!! I love Kentucky - did KY Shakes and also the Jenny Wiley Theatre way out in the Pikeville area. Would love to catch you for coffee :)

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Laura, aka "Ro Arwen"

(no subject)

from: roina_arwen
date: Aug. 14th, 2012 09:41 pm (UTC)
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I'm in Lexington, so I'd need a little notice to get to Louisville (which is where I think the KY Shakes is held, it's about an 80 minute drive).

I may have to go friend you now, LOL. =)

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Aug. 15th, 2012 08:30 pm (UTC)
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totally! Friends R Us!

I haven't worked in Louisville for awhile, but I travel Florida-Michigan and vice versa a lot, so I'm sure we'll cross paths at some point :)

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Laura, aka "Ro Arwen"

(no subject)

from: roina_arwen
date: Aug. 15th, 2012 10:00 pm (UTC)
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Hubby and I are close to I-75, so any time you're going to pass through this section of KY, drop me a line!

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