The Story of OmFly

Circus Baubo / OmFly Spring 2016

The Story of OmFly

OmFly Summer Circus 2014 / Cirque de Shiny (Jen Taylor, second from left on the bottom)

In the summer of 2005 I saw a children’s circus and a lightning bolt struck. I was in Brattleboro, Vermont in a high school gymnasium and the place was packed. I couldn’t find a seat and stood in the back against a piano.

 I barely noticed.  I was transfixed.

 

I’ll never forget the opening scene.  It was both inventive and simple:   a child asleep in a bed, except the bed stood upright and so did the child.  A mysterious song played and the words were about dreaming – dreaming of flying. It was black-lit and the sheets and bedding were white so the stage glowed with a palpable energy. Then the mattress and sheets fell away; the child emerged in full superhero ensemble striking a flying pose.  And just like that we went from waking life to the dream world. It was the first time I had seen such an explicit use of a portal in a circus framework. And how circus was capable of pulling portals out of thin air.

 

Anyway, I thought to myself, how did that guy come up with an idea like this?  That guy was Kevin O’Keefe, Artistic Director and Founder of Circus Minimus. The show was Circus Flight.  I knew Kevin because the year before, he taught me how to use a diabolo in a CircusYoga workshop at Kripalu.  I had been trying on my own for an embarrassing amount of time with no success.  Kevin taught me in a matter of minutes. He’s a five ball juggler, so that makes circus arts a piece of cake for him – diabolo, devil sticks, clubs, spinning plates, etc…  Kevin is also an impressive improvisational clown.  He uses this character to emcee his shows.  In addition to co-founding CircusYoga, he founded the American Youth Circus Organization (AYCO), the first and only youth circus organization in the United States to this day.  For over 30 years, his children’s circus has quietly seeded many other children’s circus’s, including Stone Soup Circus in Princeton, New Jersey (mentioned in The Ordinary Acrobat, an academic history of the circus), and my own.

 

For the rest of the show, I laughed and I cried as the metaphor of flight was expressed and built on through the radical use of partner acrobatics, a form I had been introduced to just six years prior.

OmFly Studio / Spring 2018

Somewhere around 1999, a friend took me to see LAVA,

an all female acrobatic troupe, at an intimate, artsy theater in Brooklyn. My jaw hit the floor from start to finish. I had to be held back from jumping on the stage. The performance obliterated any normative ideas of what circus could be.  Women of all sizes were supporting and lifting each other.  Traditionally, this specific circus art features a man supporting a woman.  Brute strength below and sexy, flexi ballerina girl above.

It was thrilling to watch these gender myths blown apart.

 

Then the trapeze came out.  It was an unspoken law I had come to accept with many others in American circus culture, that a trapeze artist had to be able to do a split so wide in a a leotard so tight and tiny that it’s a miracle her crotch doesn’t flash the audience.  None of the women in the LAVA show, including the trapeze artist, wore a leotard.  So simple.  So powerful to see for the first time.

 

The trapeze artist wore what all the other women wore: cropped leggings and a tank top, each a different color. An artistry and freedom I had never experienced infused the act; what a treat seeing non-sexualized, normal size female bodies on stage being appreciated for strength and skill. But bodies that work well, look good, no matter their size.  Without flaunting it, they exuded confidence in their bodies from their respective circus practices and they were beautiful. The theater seemed to fill with the best oxygen ever and I breathed deeply.

 

 

At LAVA I was introduced to the concept that we could physically support each other with our strength as opposed to fight each other.  Cooperation over competition. This is radical medicine for women in a culture which alienates us from each other through competition.

 

The lightning bolt of my experience at Circus Minimus, was the realization that one could bring this medicine to children.

 

And then the performance is a kind of medicine for the community.

 

Chapter Two:  Bullying & the Fostering of Female Competition in Western Culture /

Searching for Its Antidote

A Letter to a Friend

Dear Tracey – I went through some horrific bullying in junior high school from the girls and in high school from the boys. They were extremely cruel. It is sad to see that it has not gotten any worse or better. I do believe we live in a culture where women are taught to compete with each other and that this lies somewhere at the heart of the problem. Women are so fraught with anxiety (taught from a young age) over physical appearance, that herd-like behavior emerges around the “othering” of another female to allay these anxieties in group think.

I am so sorry to hear your niece is going through this and my heart goes out to her. When the girls were done with their crusade against me after two years (7th & 8th grade) I was invited to my first slumber party again. The leader of the crusade against me was not invited. Unbeknownst to me, there was a clamoring for a new campaign against my biggest bully and eventually the conversation turned to her around midnight.

The following week at school, the chief bully heard what was discussed at the slumber party and she said, “And I bet that bitch Jen Taylor was at the head of it.”

The other girl replied, “Jen Taylor was the only one who defended you. She said she wouldn’t wish that kind of treatment on her worst enemy & no one deserves it.” The group backed off her.

I watch Xena Warrior Princess as an adult, so I can’t say a nice equalizing punch won’t do the trick. But a punch can come in a few forms and I can offer what I chose as my route, the one that would bring me the most peace. And ultimately, a long game & patience was my best friend. I chose the high road and I chose to live a good life. I buried myself in whatever I loved. To this day I follow my heart & my passions. As excruciating as the ordeal was both in junior high school and then followed by an unimaginably cruel shaming & bullying by the boys in high school, it forced me to accept my own voice as the only one that mattered. In the end, that was a good lesson.

I also came to view it as an initiation for how my life would be as an adult. When you follow your heart & your dreams, you will draw the judgment of those who don’t.

I think bullying is a societal problem and we all need to do work to remedy it. Your niece’s experience is a bell calling us to examine this issue. It may sound silly to some, but my teaching circus (this has nothing to do with clowns) was born out of my experience and subsequent search for a remedy to bullying. My fascination with circus arts like partner acrobatics & aerial work emerged from a desire to give children the tools that I and my fellow classmates didn’t have. First of all, a way to delight in your body no matter what size it is, if it works, it’s beautiful! Second, a way to cooperate and delight in what happens when we support each other, as opposed to competition-driven behavior. Being the best of a rigidly defined stereotype is a super-limiting idea of what it means to be a female. In this kind of culture, only one can hold the title. So our culture at large pushes an extreme competition which has dire consequences on the souls of all girl children.

If your niece would like to bring a friend or two to my studio for a trapeze & silks class, I would welcome her. It’s unfortunate that she is experiencing this aspect of human cruelty at a young age, and it will leave a mark. It’s what she does with the information that counts. Let her know there are adults who have made it through and even came through shining on the other side because of it or in spite of it. Understanding and having faith in a long game was my best remedy.

Also, in my case, the bullying eventually grew to a level of brazen-ness that a teacher noticed- Mrs. Waterbury our beloved and much respected gym teacher and drama coach. The girls were pretending to trip so that they would bump into me during gym class after which they thought it was so funny to scream and run off saying they got cooties. They did this in the hallway between classes, but it was always too crowded out there for it to be noticed. You only need one teacher to step up to the plate and be an advocate for your niece, someone respected preferably who can sit the girls down and explain to them the effects of their behavior and why it is wrong in a way that they will listen to. That’s a tall order, Mrs. Waterbury was a saint.

Also, by choosing the high road, the bullying went on for longer, which I remember was excruciating for my mom, aunts, family, etc… to watch, but in the end, it was the best thing for me, and I applaud your niece for doing the hard, but right thing. What an amazing spirit. Tell her I said that.

Circus Bonobo / OmFly Spring 2017 (left to right, Judi Ann Jones, Amanda Kulos, Dani Bobbi Lee & Jen Taylor)

 

Chapter Three: Simultaneous vs. sequential processing /

Circus Arts: a remedy to excessive right brain over-use or how I learned to hula hoop & juggle at the same time

 

brain-balancing medicine whilst writing a thesis on the excision of the body in the Western Philosophical Cannon.

 

Chapter Three:  Xena Warrior Princess and the Titanic

When I was a little girl two events loomed large in the public imagination. Landing on the moon and the sinking of the Titanic.  Humankind could fly that high and sink that low…

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