Overcoming Fear in Circus

“On the other side of fear is freedom.” – Marilyn Ferguson.

Imagine that you are about to walk onstage. The announcer is calling your name and you know that as soon as you step onstage, everyone will be watching you. How do you feel? If the answer is scared out of your wits, then don’t worry, you are in good company. As a circus performer, I know that some of the most frightening times are when I’m about to go onstage, when I’m in the air, or when I’m doing a new skill. I have found numerous ways to overcome fear so that I am not weighed down by hesitation and I can have a lot more fun as I pursue my love for circus.

Stage fright is the worst! I have definitely experienced stage fright before. In my experience, the worst fright is before you get onstage. You are waiting for your act to be called and your stomach is lurching around and you just think, “I can’t do it! It’s not going to work. I can’t do it.” Usually people give into this fear at first. But what you might not know is that when you actually step onstage and the music starts, your mind flips into performance mode. Once you are in performance mode, you stop thinking about the audience and your brain is focusing on other things like, “Point your toes. Climb up a little more, now right on cue…” You may occasionally need to force yourself into performance mode, but it is usually pretty natural. Now, just because you know this, it doesn’t mean that your pre-performance fear is going to vanish. I have been performing for three years and I am still scared before every show. Here is how you can deal with this fear: DO NOT fight it! When people feel fear, their first instinct is to try to get rid of it. That will only make your fear worse. Just accept it, acknowledge that you are scared and don’t be afraid to be afraid. Because fear isn’t bad! Sure it feels bad, but if you push it away, it will get worse.

Another common difficulty is fear of heights. While I personally don’t have a fear of heights, I knew someone who did and I admire her for her bravery. When I was first getting into circus, I was going to a camp in Chicago called The Actor’s Gymnasium. There, I made friends with a girl called Lina (name changed for privacy). The first time I noticed that she was afraid of heights was when our group was learning how to get up onto the trapeze. Lina took the bar, hooked her knees, and put one hand on the rope before whimpering that she wanted to come down. After the lesson, I asked her why she was so scared and she told me that she had a fear of heights. At that time, I had never really taken into account that people could be afraid of being more than a few feet in the air. Seeing as I had never been afraid of heights, I couldn’t relate to Lina’s fear. I saw how her fear impacted her circus experience, and I felt that she didn’t get enough credit. All of the instructors kept telling her to “be brave” and that she, “didn’t have to be scared,” but I think that anyone who has a fear of heights should be acknowledged that they are brave for challenging their fear, even if it means getting halfway to sitting on the trapeze. By the end of camp, Lina could sit on the trapeze! Even though she didn’t meet the goals of the class, she met her own goals by conquering some of her fear.

Even though I don’t have a genuine fear of heights, I do go through a lot of fear when it comes to drops. Drops can be very scary to a lot of people, even those who do circus aerials. You need to climb up very high, and do the wrap, and let go, and then just fall into space for around two seconds before you are caught by the fabric or whatever apparatus you are using. I am always scared before I drop because I think that as soon as I let go, I will fall into a terrifying abyss. Whether you are afraid of heights or scared of the process of drops, there are a lot of ways in which you can overcome your angst. Little by little, create a list of tangible goals. Break down the goal into smaller parts, and tackle them one at a time. The worst part for me is the adrenalin that comes before you let go. The best way that I deal with this fear is right before I release my hold on the silks, I tell myself, “All you need to do is let go. Just let go.” I convince myself to let go with my hands and then momentum does the rest. Trust your teacher, your equipment, and yourself. You just have to go for it, and you will be okay!

So, whether you are terrified of heights or have paralyzing stage fright, just know that there are ways to overcome your fear. You will find them! Remember to acknowledge your fear and work towards your own goals. Accept that every act, drop, or performance comes with a little fear. Know that the only way to practice bravery is to be scared.

– Lyra

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