When the economy tanked a decade ago, Ellen Waylonis took a voluntary layoff from her marketing job and pursued her longtime secret ambition: running off to join the circus. Or actually, the next best thing — she applied to circus school. Her dad, a defense contractor, and her mother, a preschool educator, were “pretty cool” with her decision, as it was not the first weird choice she’s made, says Waylonis.
She commuted from Fitchburg and trained in Vermont, working out 40 hours a week. That’s where she met her husband, Roger May, as they practiced partner acrobatics and were constantly “hangry” because of the long commute and physically exhausting days.
For her graduation performance, Waylonis did an aerial routine and established her persona of a “super femme” white girl with significant cleavage, as she describes it. When she and May became proprietors of Esh Circus Arts in Somerville, her parents were pleased, as they could now say their daughter was a small business owner — a circus business, but still a business. Esh Circus Arts attracts a large transgender and gender non-conforming clientele.
“Circus attracts a lot of unconventional people because it’s an unconventional pursuit,” says Waylonis. There are also a lot of tech workers, college students, and professional artists who take the 80 different classes in everything from hoop diving and contortion to juggling, tight wire, and tumbling.
The popularity of Esh reflects the increasing popularity of recreational circus, even though it’s not a cheap hobby. “Despite our Puritan roots, circus appeals to folks in this area because it’s off the beaten path. It allows you to be creatively expressive. That’s not true of all physical pursuits,” says Waylonis. She also performs at fund-raisers and galas, like a Ferrari launch party where she wandered through the crowd as a roving entertainer. The Globe spoke to Waylonis about her work in the circus arts.
“Esh is a Hebrew word with many layers of meanings, including fire, flame, or passion, or to pursue something with dedication. Esh started as a tiny project in the back room of a converted tire warehouse. There was a crack in the wall with a plant growing through it, but we had crash mats and safe riggings, and the demand started to grow.
“We moved from there to a mixed-use building, then to our current space, a former envelope factory. Like the first location, it was pretty rough, but we had contractors and a structural engineer come and did a lot of the dry wall, insulation, and painting by ourselves. Our expansion has been largely self-financed as well as backed with a personal loan from a friend. We also ran a crowdfunding campaign to help the building project.
“Every apparatus in our gym is custom-made by someone in the circus world, whether it’s the trapeze, aerial ropes or handstand canes, which are made by my husband. This reflects how circus, in the beginning, was an insular pursuit that a small circle of friends would practice in our backyards, teaching each other partner acrobatics, or acro yoga. There wasn’t a lot online at this point, so circus aficionados would meet each other at festivals and workshops.
“My own path to the professional circus wasn’t clearly defined. I was only moderately athletic and performed in dance troupes and did gymnastics as a kid. I’m actually pretty shy in social situations, but the irony is that as a circus performer I definitely like the attention. I have the most fun doing comedic routines.
“For corporate work in particular, I can be campy sexy, flirtatious and friendly, but not provocative. My signature move is a split while pulling one of my legs behind my head — it’s called a y-scale. Or any rope move where I hang down, then roll upwards — it looks like defying gravity, but it’s really a lot of core strength in action. I still train four to five days a week, but as a small business owner, I’m distracted by insurance bills, setting up schedules, teaching private lessons, or even just making sure we have enough toilet paper.
“I joke that part of the reason I love being a circus performer is that I can claim fake eyelashes and rhinestones as a tax write-off. But there’s also the sense that my career has a time limit, especially the performing part.
“I’m almost 36 years old now, and when I start to look ‘older,’ I know there are jobs I just won’t get any more. But a lot of circus performance is about what you can do, and I’ll adapt as I go along. Circus looks different now than it did a century ago, certainly, but as it moves out of the big top and onto stages and theaters, the art form will change as our culture evolves. I don’t think circus is going to disappear. And it’s true that all the world’s a stage. My husband likes to do handstands at the airport while waiting for a flight. It’s quite entertaining and always attracts a crowd.”Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.