Making HerStory

Elena Sherman

Elena is my cousin’s daughter. I kept seeing photos and videos of her performances in her mom’s Facebook feed, and I just had to know more about how she went from being a designer to a full-time aerialist. Have you ever found yourself avoiding your dream, simply because you were worried…about failing, disappointing someone, or wasting time or money?  Well, perhaps Elena can offer you a bit of inspiration. Welcome, Elena!

Elena performing at the Modified Style Portland 7th annual fashion show. Photo by Jeff Wong with Coco Columbia.

Elena performing at the Modified Style Portland 7th annual fashion show. Photo by Jeff Wong with Coco Columbia.

My life as a performing aerialist started completely on accident– I had been a competitive swimmer through middle and high schools and probably would have pursued it into college were it not for a shoulder injury that required a surgical repair. During college I led a pretty active lifestyle; I walked around everywhere on the hilly campus and held several jobs that required a fair amount of activity (stagehand, barista, computer retail specialist).

Elena on vacation pre-aerial, one week before starting her first professional design job.

Elena on vacation pre-aerial, one week before starting her first professional design job.

So, when I graduated and got my first desk job, it was a big shock to find myself in a very sedentary position. Unhappy with the sudden weight gain, I searched for a new fitness avenue (my love of swimming had sort of died after the surgery) and a casual comment to a coworker led me to try my first lyra class (now my specialty – a 38” diameter steel ring suspended by a single point from the ceiling that spins really fast).

Designer Elena working through a user experience flow (2 months pre-aerial).

Designer Elena working through a user experience flow (2 months pre-aerial).

My intent when I began taking aerial lessons was just to get active in a new and challenging way – and it was challenging! I had always felt comfortable being backstage (hence being a stagehand), so the idea of becoming good enough to perform on stage never crossed my mind. I was happy with my design career and was just enjoying the recreational process of developing the muscles and flexibility required to get me to the next trick and then to keep working to have the strength and endurance to start putting skills together into sequences.

Bits and pieces of hardware from a Fight or Flight Entertainment rigging workshop. Just a small example of some of the tools that let's us do what we do in the air and keeps us safe. Learning how to use these things properly and what to look for to prevent rigging and hardware failures is incredibly important.

Bits and pieces of hardware from a Fight or Flight Entertainment rigging workshop. Just a small example of some of the tools that lets aerialists do what they do in the air and keeps them safe.

I was (and usually still am) constantly covered in bruises, my hands were often cracked and bleeding, and I was more sore than any swimming workout ever made me. But I loved every minute of it! I loved the people at the school where I trained, the accomplishment of getting a skill to work after failing so many times, and the emotional expression that suddenly started to peek out, once I got comfortable being suspended in the air.

Flexibility was not something I had an over abundance of when I first started aerial, but through dedicated hours of training and working with several coaches I am starting to see some significant progress. Photo by Gunnar Field.

“Flexibility was not something I had an over abundance of when I first started aerial, but through dedicated hours of training and working with several coaches I am starting to see some significant progress.”  Photo by Gunnar Field.

When the opportunity to become an apprentice at the school came up, I jumped at the chance to get involved further.  Things really took off from there – from just one lyra class a week, I started being there 4-6 times a week (static trapeze, contortion, conditioning, open gyms, etc.).  There was always so much more to learn!

Elena after 3 years of aerial training. Photo by Brent Holzapfel.

Elena after 3 years of aerial training. Photo by Brent Holzapfel.

After about three years, something changed for me. It was a slow change, not a sudden one, but I started to see all of the aerial work I was doing not as “this is what I do to stay in shape” but as “this is what feeds my creative spirit,” despite working as a full-time user interface designer. All of my other interests/former hobbies (design, sewing, technical theater) began to funnel into the desire to create meaningful stories through this movement that was once so foreign. Gradually, performing became something I looked forward to instead of something that made me nervous, tense, and slightly panicked.

Elena on a lyra with a Ludwig portable aerial stand, an example of the tools used by aerialists to be able to do what they do when safe structures are not available to rig off of indoors or outside. Photo by Wittypixel Photography.

Elena on a lyra with a Ludwig portable aerial stand, an example of the tools used by aerialists to be able to do what they do when safe structures are not available to rig off of indoors or outside. Photo by Wittypixel Photography.

The people I have met through circus and aerial arts are some of the most incredible human beings on the planet – not just because of what they can do physically, but because of their passion for their craft, dedication to this tireless work, determination to keep throwing themselves into more challenging tricks or environments, fearless ability to expose their raw emotion night after night, and the never-ending support of the community (both emotionally and physically). Because somehow, at the end of the day, all of the danger and risk they put themselves through on a daily basis is all worth it for this art that is uniquely circus.

Elena (top) and aerial partner Jackie performing for a special event in Kansas City. Photo by Tiffany Matson.

Elena (top) and aerial partner Jackie, performing for a special event in Kansas City. Photo by Tiffany Matson.

Becoming a professional aerialist is not an easy road; it is riddled with injury, frustration, failure, heartbreak, loneliness, solitude, and insecurity. To do well in this field, you must be willing to sacrifice everything because there are never any guarantees for anything (contracts, gigs, space, safety, etc.). If you can stick with it, the accomplishment of creating captivating works of art often outweighs all of the hurdles. For me, I have grown stronger and felt more deeply than I ever had before since I really began to open up as a performing artist, and I can no longer imagine my life without this work or this community of inspirational performers. There are a lot of rapid changes happening in the circus world right now, but I look forward to going along for the ride as long as I am physically able.

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6 Comments

  • Reply
    Natalie Douglass
    October 14, 2016 at 10:49 am

    What an amazing story! I love reading your blog!

    • Reply
      Laura
      October 14, 2016 at 11:39 am

      Thanks, Natalie! We love creating it!

  • Reply
    Martha
    October 14, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    Wow what a great example, very inspiring, thank you Elena

  • Reply
    Melessa
    October 14, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    This makes me want to start stretching again!

  • Reply
    Lillian Soza
    October 14, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    A Sister in my mission does this now in Argentina, and it is so beautiful!!! I love in the pictures how her body changed ever time. Maybe I need a little bit of that in my life. *wink*

  • Reply
    Amy
    October 14, 2016 at 8:07 pm

    That is amazing. As someone who literally cannot touch her toes with her legs straight, I am deeply envious of her fitness and her dedication.

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