Brilliantly clad circus performers standing in a circle clasp their hands tightly, raising their voices as they chant “Good, safe, fast show!” three times, each louder and faster than before. The circle breaks, and the first act of the Great All American Youth Circus of Redlands, California storms the stage.
Performance memories and her favorite circus traditions hold hints of nostalgia for Hannah Brenchley, a first-year political science student. Yet leaving behind the circus that has been her second family since she joined nine years ago does not mean the end of her involvement, as Brenchley plans on starting a related club at UCLA.
At age 12, Brenchley joined the circus to accompany her younger sister, who had been passionate about the idea for several years. With no experience and a naturally inflexible body, Brenchley made more skilled friends who encouraged her to work hard for improvement.
With the influence of her peers, Brenchley pushed herself to join as many as seven acts at a time. This commitment led her to spend upwards of 13 hours per week at the YMCA gym where practices were held.
While her experience extends from acrobatics to tightrope, Brenchley said she preferred aerial performances, such as hammock, in which she would execute tricks on fabric that hung from the ceiling, suspended above the ground below. It is her favorite because she is able to depend on herself to execute the act.
Hearing crowds cheer and seeing audience’s faces light up because of acts like hammock fueled her passion to improve.
“Going out and being able to see 300 people’s faces as they watch you is very magical,” Brenchley said. “When you hear everyone gasp and you know you’re creating this magical experience for them, it’s a very fun feeling.”
Outside of circus, Brenchley said she participated in student leadership and clubs throughout high school. Going straight from school to circus practice at 4:30 p.m., Brenchley wouldn’t arrive home after practice until 10:30 p.m. After eating a hasty dinner, she pored over textbooks until three or four in the morning.
“She would bring her SAT books and all her study books and she would be stretching or sitting in her middle splits and studying,” said Olivia Catalano, a fellow performer and one of Brenchley’s close friends.
Brenchley said becoming part of the circus community was one of the most rewarding parts of her involvement. The circus community allowed participants to be themselves by curating an environment free of judgment and full of self-expression.
Brenchley said the familial community of the circus is built upon the trust involved when depending on one another in more advanced aerial acts. The close quarters where performers got ready for shows reinforced these strong bonds.
“Picture an old-timey, model bathroom and there’s girls putting on lipstick and it’s very classy. Well, it’s the complete opposite of that,” Brenchley said.
A single trailer served as the dressing room for 50 to 100 girls under 16 years old. With tutus strewn about and the smell of hairspray in the air, girls crowded round the single mirror, applying makeup hurriedly for the next act.
The influence of mentors and friends led her to conquer her natural inflexibility, teaching lessons on hard work and endurance. Brenchley said when she began learning more advanced aerial acts, she would often need to practice a trick upwards of 50 times to get it consistently. She said this hard work helped her gain confidence and knowledge of who she was.
Mentors such as Manuel Colunga, a circus trainer, encouraged Brenchley to trust the learning process and forgive herself when she didn’t perfect tricks immediately. Colunga said he strove to teach her her strengths and weaknesses and how to overcome them.
“It’s very important, just having that self-belief that comes along with knowing that you can hold yourself 35 feet in the air and get thrown about in flips,” Brenchley said. “It’s very empowering.”
Brenchley said she feels motivated to share the information and experiences she has found so valuable in her personal growth from an inexperienced sixth grader to an accomplished performer. She is considering starting a club at UCLA to teach students aerial circus skills.
“In life that’s an important thing, to give back to the community and if you have a talent, share it,” she said.
Brenchley said that while continuing circus at UCLA will be different from the tight-knit community, bright lights of performance and long hours of practice in the home she is leaving behind, she will cherish the skills learned over the past nine years.
There is a tightrope saying, she said, explaining that once a skill set is learned, it can be applied anywhere.
“The wire never changes, only the height,” Brenchley said.