“I heard you need someone for triple trap?”
The triple trap is a long trapeze, basically a bar with four ropes dividing it into three sections. Three, four or five performers work in unison, balancing and holding each other while perched on the bar, lifting their own weight in the ropes or clinging below the bar. At the audition everyone tucked up, curling into a ball and hooking their knees, just like on the monkey bars not too many years ago. Then reached up, grabbed the ropes and pulled to sitting. “Pose like a circus princess or a handsome circus prince!” I called, enjoying their fabulous arms. But all I was really looking for was hover—can they reach up from sitting, grab the ropes, and pull their body off the bar, floating in a seated position a few inches above the trapeze.
Every coach has one thing they need to cast a kid in their act. In aerial silks, can you hang from your hands and turn upside down without jumping? In poi-spinning (glowing balls strung on cords that whip through the air in patterns) do you love the act, because it’s boring to practice without wanting to do it? We only have two weeks to train the show. A kid who doesn’t meet “that one thing” is going to be miserable, the only one in their act who can’t get up, the one doomed to “keep trying!” while everyone else succeeds.
Shelly cannot hover. Or rather, with brute force, Shelly can haul her body off the bar briefly, landing hard when her arms quit. Shelly is otherwise amazing. This is her fourth year in Starfish Circus, her senior year in high school. Three times she has been in partner acrobatics, where she is a powerful base. If a kid is floppy or doesn’t feel like trying, Shelly will lift them and make them try. Shelly and her partner—any partner—will get the move every time. In the “comedy squad” (don’t get me started on clowns) Shelly was hilarious in both line-writing and delivery. She dives into any skill we teach, whether the risk is to her dignity or her person, and has never asked “You want me to do what?” She is generally the biggest smile in rehearsal, and we’re a pretty smiley bunch.
When Shelly asks me, “Miss Allison, I hear you need someone for triple trap?” I assume she’s heard that Corrine realized today her church trip is the same weekend as the show, that I’ve tapped Jessica to replace Corrine and Jessica’s not here tonight. We’re four days in and anyone new is going to have a hard time, the girls have already bonded and the choreography is taking shape.
“I sure do,” I say, thinking Shelly probably has a great idea, someone I haven’t thought of.
“Can I try?”
I hadn’t thought of Shelly. Because she’s not strong enough, she doesn’t have a full split, she’s substantially larger than the other two girls and it’s not the good kind of funny when one end of the trapeze hangs lower than the other.
But I love her, and I’m caught by surprise, so I say, “Train with us tonight and see how it goes.”
It goes poorly. She falls off the trapeze twice from under the bar, once from on the bar and once from the ropes. Yes, of course we have a mat, but it’s not a crash pad, it’s not meant to catch her from six feet.
She gets up every time. Smiling, making fun of herself, wanting it bad.
I think about my time this week, about how extra hours will have to be spent and I don’t have extra hours unless I shoehorn them in, unless writing or calling my husband or sleeping takes last place. I think about explaining to Shelly I don’t want her. I think about being one more person telling this beautiful girl she’s not strong enough or not skinny enough or just plain not enough.
“Let’s try basing.” The girls rotate through, two sitting and sticking out a flexed foot, one in the middle below the trapeze, doing the splits on the bases’ feet. It takes a hard pop to raise the girl in the middle back to the bar, and with Shelly’s powerful legs the girl in the middle flies up like a rocket, the move is a moment of radiance and joy.
That I can work with.
At the end of rehearsal I call her over. “Tomorrow I need you to stay on the trapeze. Improve your grip, OK?”
Shelly beams a million watts, for one moment in the world she is enough, for right now that is enough. “Yes, Miss Allison,” she says, and maybe someday I can fix that, too.
I love teaching circus to kids almost as much as I love retiring from it. This is my second-to-last Starfish Circus!