For circus professionals and amateurs, personal progress keeps them going

Students at Esh Circus Arts in Somerville, MA participate in handstand and acrobatic classes. PHOTO BY Aiden FitzGerald

By Aiden FitzGerald

For circus performers it isn’t all about audience.

“We don’t want the audience to be quiet,” said Ilse Baryshnikov, 18, an aerialist and contortionist in the children’s traveling circus, Circus Smirkus. “We want people to cheer and laugh and call things out and clap.”

 But as much as live feedback is encouraging, so is the performer’s unlimited personal progress.

“Circus is addictive because it’s very fun and it’s progressive in that you’re always able to challenge yourself with something new and there’re no end to it,” said Roger May, who co-owns Esh Circus Arts in Somerville with his wife, Ellen Waylonis.

On a recent summer evening at Esh, May demonstrated with ease a strong and steady handstand and instructed students how to do the same during his handstand class.  

“You have the will,” he told one of his students. “Now visualize your hips coming forward.”

“I’m scared,” replied the young woman.

“I respect the fear,” May said. “I’ve got your back.”

The student put her hands on the floor and heaved her legs into the air for May to catch

“There it is. You placed it really well,” May said, helping her to find her center. “More hips, more hips.”

After class, when asked why she wants to learn how to do a handstand, Ariel Wahl, 32, said with a smile, “There is just nothing more in this world that I want to do.” 

A fitness instructor herself, Wahl is athletic and agile but said the handstand continues to be her greatest physical challenge. She has been working on it since 2018.

Another Esh student, Boston resident Katherine Epstein, said attempting to learn how to do a handstand reminds her of being a child learning a new skill. 

“I love to see and feel the progress,” she said.

That feeling of progress in circus arts is what keeps people coming back for more, May said. 

“Circus seems impossible but when you break it down, you realize it’s actually achievable. You have to train hard but there’s this self-discovery process that people experience. A light in their eyes shines when they realize what they can do.”

May and Waylonis attended the New England Center for Circus Arts in Vermont as newlyweds and took over ownership of Esh in 2010. Since then the business has grown from a small studio to a 5,000 square foot space offering more than 100 classes per week to clients ranging in age from 18 months into their 70s. The majority of the clientele at Esh, May said, are professional adults who are seeking an alternative to the gym and are community-oriented.

A welcoming, fun community with a culture of inclusivity are integral to the idea of circus.

“I enjoy the sense of family that comes with it and the fact that it’s a really great space for nontraditional lifestyle choices and people,” said Waylonis, who also recently founded the Boston-based performance troupe Circus 617. 

In recent years May and Waylonis have noticed a growing interest, nationwide, in recreational circus: “There is always a fitness trend and now circus is having a moment,” said May. 

And for good reason— the training benefits, May said, translate into other parts of participants’ lives.

“Circus training makes you more dextrous, more strong, more agile. It makes you think quicker, react faster,” said May, who loves to do handstands on the bodies of other people.

Esh Circus Arts owner, Roger May, demonstrates how to do a handstand. PHOTO BY Aiden FitzGerald

For a long time circus skills were passed down through generations of a family but now performers attend highly competitive circus colleges such as NECCA and Canada’s National Circus School in Montreal.

Ilse Baryshnikov, the Circus Smirkus performer, plans to attend the National Circus School in the fall. She began practicing aerial arts in Providence, Rhode Island when she was nine years old. At ten, she attended Circus Smirkus camp and the next year she started traveling with the troupe.

“There’s a certain magic to the idea of circus,” said Rob Mermin, who founded Circus Smirkus in 1987. “When you do circus it’s a combination of your own individual skill and talent blended into a community effort, working with other circus people not in competition, but in cooperation.”

Mermin trained in European circuses and observed a sense of maturity among children who were growing up in the circus, being educated on the road. 

“When I came back to the States, I wanted to give American kids that same kind of opportunity because I know there was nothing like it over here, that kind of apprentice experience for kids working in a circus,” he said.

That circus experience has been invaluable for Smirkus performer, or “Smirko,” Eva Lou Rhinelander, 17, of Melrose, who began hula hooping when she was eight now specializes in hula hoops, hand stands and contortions. Rhinelander said that the work is real fun even though she and her peers train for long hours every day and also set up and take down the big top on the road.

“I like working for something. I like training really hard and getting better at it,” said Rhinelander. “Wearing sparkly costumes and hearing the applause from the audience feels good too.”

Fellow Smirko Grant Bishop, 18, a juggler and acrobat from Los Angeles, plans to attend the National Circus School with Baryshnikov in the fall. He hopes to become a professional circus artist, work for a cruise ship, and have a travel residency oneday.

“I love the clear indications of progress. But progress isn’t linear. There will be backstops,” he said. Landing the five club juggling pattern was a recent milestone for Grant. 

“I love visualization. I’ll think about what I want to do in slow motion,” said Bishop. “I love closing my eyes and taking a couple of deep breaths and seeing the trick I’m about to do.”

Rhinelander and Bishop understand that their shared desire to pursue circus work professionally is unconventional and they are appreciative of their families’ support. 

“I’m so grateful for my parents. They are my biggest supporters,” said Rhinelander, who will homeschool for her senior year of high school and hopes to attend circus college in the future.

They are already dreading the end of the summer, when they’ll say goodbye to their Smirkus community. 

“When we leave here everyone is crying,” said Rhinelander. “It’s such a supportive environment where people aren’t afraid to be who they are.”

“It’s a place where you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing for the whole day, every day,” said Grant.

Or, as Roger May described the experience: “It gets into you. No one really ever leaves the circus.”


About Aiden FitzGerald 5 Articles
Aiden FitzGerald is a writer whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and Rhode Island Monthly, among other publications. Her interests in social justice and her love of nature, art and motherhood drive her work. Aiden received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, where she is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Journalism.