By Kristen Polizzi
Barefoot and bewildered, I hung upside down. My fingers tightly gripped a black, rubber-wrapped hoop that swung haphazardly from a wood-paneled ceiling.
I’d been instructed to move with control: to lift my legs and core off the ground, keeping my shoulders square with the padded mats below, hitching my knees into the hoop, before dropping one leg and the matching hand, allowing them to float fluidly through the air.
I drew a breath in one syllable and let it out in the next. Con-trol. And then I launched. Legs up, crotch to bar, I wrapped myself around the hoop with the speed and fury of a battered tetherball.
Sometime over the summer, I’d spotted the space from whose ceiling I currently swung. In north Lawrence, nestled between Johnny’s Tavern and The Village Witch, sits a stone-front that—having served as a martial arts studio, bicycle recyclery and art gallery infamous for its underage raves—is now home to The Last Carnival, the city’s first and only school for circus arts.
It was there, in an exhibitionist’s Eden on a block broken by the river, that I enrolled in my first aerial dance class. Introduction to Aerial Arts, a $20, hour-long session and prerequisite for the beginner level course, was meant to teach the basic moves—mounts, descents, foot-locks and climbs—on the aerial silks, aerial hoop and static trapeze. The class was capped at four students, but I’d landed a private lesson.
I met my instructor at the door. Lavender hair framed a friendly face and trailed braided and blue down her back. In the studio she was Sihka and on the stage: Sihka Ann Destroy. Only her parents call her by her given name, which she never did tell me.
“My kids have performance names too,” she said, laughing. “They just happen to be their actual names.”
She spoke excitedly about her son, Wylder Animal, who at age 3 is no stranger to the silks; and her 9-year-old daughter, Willow Lotus, who practices her half flag on parking meters downtown.
Sihka wasn’t raised in three rings. She grew up in Florissant, Mo., a second-ring suburb of St. Louis, and saw aerial silks performed for the first time as a child at a flea market circus in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She hit the road at 18 and after more than a decade of walking, biking and hitchhiking across the country, studying dance and working as a street performer, she settled for the second time in Lawrence where she opened The Last Carnival in January.
I slipped off my sandals and followed her to the studio’s center, where she guided me through a series of stretches—a deep lunge, a deeper lunge. Could I call what came next a split? She assessed me as being “actually pretty flexible,” an appraisal I accepted with caution. I was, after all, intimately aware of the limits of my own athleticism.
“I can’t do that one either,” said Montana Hockenbury, about a stretch that forcedly introduced my elbows to the backs of my knees. The 18-year-old advanced aerial student from Lawrence, whose thin frame I’d seen flitting around the room to Paloma Faith’s “Upside Down,” sunk cross-legged onto the mat beside me.
Hockenbury graduated from Lawrence Free State last spring and has since taken on a new course load: eight acrobatic classes per week split among The Last Carnival and a few studios in Kansas City. She plans to apply to professional circus schools in Montreal and San Francisco. A traveling troupe, she said, would suit her just fine.
After that, it was time to fly.
Sihka demonstrated how to anchor the silks—two pieces of nylon fabric joined at top and suspended from the ceiling—by wrapping them twice around her calf and securing them in a loop under her heel. I followed along and, with my left foot, stepped through the sling I’d just created with my right.
Then came the “egg roll” (see unflattering picture below), which was—at least the way I did it—less of a roll and more of a flip backward into open air. With a silk in each fist, I slowly shifted my weight backward, drawing my left knee toward my chest until I could see out the open door behind me. Sihka, sensing that I might, at any moment, come catapulting into an upright position, held the silks steady as I completed the trick.
A few feet away, the purple, padded mats were being parted to accommodate one of two newly polished poles.
Stephanie McIntosh, a Kansas City native and The Last Carnival’s most recent hire, was preparing to teach the school’s first pole fitness class later that night. She spoke softly at first but grew increasingly animated, spewing details of how she—a swimmer and track star with no previous dance experience—had turned pole fitness into a passion and part-time career.
Four years ago, while studying at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, she’d taken her first pole dance class with her sorority sisters; six months later, she was teaching it.
“It’s not something you have to be born into,” she said, echoing the sentiments of nearly every instructor in the studio that day.
Next up: the aerial hoop.
We crossed the mats, weaving in and out among the talents of Sihka’s “bendy students.” A young girl in pigtails and striped tights reclined in mid-air—her spine shaped smoothly to the curve of a steel hoop that swung lazily past a large picture window. Sihka nodded at a nearby silk, a signal the girl must have interpreted as “Clear the area.” Because she dropped deftly to the ground, mounting a silk across the studio.
I flexed my fingers around the hoop’s rubber wrapping, bent my knees and inhaled deeply. My arms started to shake.
Edited by Katie Gilbaugh
Photos by Samantha Darling