I tracked the package obsessively. When USPS finally confirmed it had been delivered, I took the train into Manhattan on a Saturday and begged the security guard at my office to go through the giant sack of mail behind his desk until he found it. I tore open the envelope in the office bathroom. My new leotard, which I planned to wear to perform in a show with my fellow circus students, had finally arrived.
Silver hologram sequins littered the floor as I wrestled the stiff, shiny material over my hips. I ventured out of the stall to check out my reflection in the full-length mirror, hoping nobody working the weekend shift would walk in. The costume had a halter top, padded cups, and a cutout that revealed a few inches of skin above my belly button. It was a lot more eye-catching — and, at $115 plus $6.50 for shipping, a lot more expensive — than the plain black leotards I’d worn for my first few student performances. I didn’t own anything like it; my closet was full of cardigans and comfortable, knee-length wrap dresses.
My group chat confirmed the costume looked good. The low back showed off the muscles I’d built over the past five years of circus classes, climbing 15 feet into the air on two strips of fabric strung from the ceiling and hoisting myself up to perch atop a suspended metal hoop.
Still, as I looked at myself in the mirror, I wavered. I was almost 34 and had just paid more than $100 for a sparkly leotard, for what was basically the adult equivalent of a school dance recital. At the time, I was financially comfortable enough to afford the splurge, but could I really justify it? It felt like an extravagant amount, in the same ballpark as a classy dress I might convince myself it was okay to buy since I could wear it to multiple job interviews and weddings. Then again, $115 was a drop in the bucket next to the thousands of dollars I’d already spent on classes, private lessons, and space rentals since starting my circus hobby.
I discovered aerial silks classes when I was 29. I didn’t really know what I was signing up for when a friend suggested we go to an “aerial dance” class while I was visiting her in New York, but it seemed like the kind of cool thing you would do in a big city. When we arrived, I watched one of the advanced students climb up the fabric, scissor her legs, and kick through the silks in a turnkey motion, forming a loop around one thigh. In one swift, fluid move, she’d created a secure hold so she could hang out in midair. It looked like magic.
I didn’t believe I’d ever be able to do that, and I didn’t necessarily want to. I had never dreamed of being an aerialist; the first time I ever saw a silks performer, twirling high above the crowd at a DeVotchKa concert, I thought it looked cool, but not a single part of me wanted to be in her place.
Still, when I got home from visiting my friend, I found an aerial class in my city and signed up, mostly because I was at a point in my life when I had some free time and was looking for something to do.
I’d dabbled with various hobbies throughout my 20s. As a novice knitter, I amassed a stash of luxurious sequined yarn but never produced more than basic scarves, a few simple hats, and a single baby bootie (I didn’t finish the other one). I signed up for an introductory drawing class. I wasn’t very good, and I got the sense that the instructor, a kind Albanian man with a thick accent, felt sorry for me.
“Look at the cube,” he said, gesturing to the box on the table in front of us. “Now look at your picture. Does it look like that cube?”
“No,” I said. I couldn’t figure out how to make it more realistic, and I realized I didn’t really care. I liked photography classes better, but I still have rolls of undeveloped film somewhere in my closet.
I hadn’t found my thing — until I found aerial silks. It provided the outlet for creative energy that I’d been missing. The stakes were low: I had never been a gymnast or dancer and did not see myself as a particularly strong or graceful person, so I didn’t expect to be good at silks, and it didn’t bother me when at first, I wasn’t. It gave me a space where I could work hard at something with no big-picture goal in mind.
For most of my 20s, surrounded by other young strivers in Washington, DC, work had felt like the most important thing in my life. I’d started at my organization as an assistant and been promoted a few times. At the office, I always tried to go above and beyond. I wanted to be seen as smart, creative, and up to date on all the industry trends. I wanted to be assigned the most interesting and prestigious projects in my department. I wanted the word “senior” to be printed on my business cards.
In my silks classes, though, I focused on gaining new skills not to impress my bosses or so I could eventually make more money, but just because it was fun to set my mind on something and see if I could do it. My circus ambitions were modest and incremental: I wanted to climb to the top of the fabric. I wanted to be able to invert, which meant lifting my legs above my head and hooking my knee around the silk. Then I wanted to do a drop, even though it scared me. Maybe one day, I wanted to put together a simple beginner routine with music and perform in a show.
I started going to more and more classes. I spent hours watching videos of people doing silks tricks on YouTube and Instagram. I moved to New York and met a group of women who invited me to train with them on the weekends. We’d each pay $10 or $15 to rent a small circus space in Williamsburg and spend Friday nights goofing around in the air and practicing the things we’d learned in class. I started videotaping myself, propping my phone up against my water bottle at the edge of the mat, and reviewing my performance on the bus ride home. My hands looked weird, my legs needed to be straighter, my toes needed a stronger point.
One winter, a guy I liked ghosted me and I signed up to do my first solo performance. It seemed like a good way to distract myself. I choreographed my act to a Cat Power song and listened to it on repeat every day while I commuted to work, running through all the movements in my head. I thought I might freeze and forget my routine when I was in front of an audience, but I didn’t. When it was my turn to go on, the muscle memory I’d developed through hours of rehearsals kicked in. I felt like I’d blacked out for the entirety of the performance, but I immediately wanted to do it again.
I signed up to do another show a few months later, and then another one after that. I discovered how much I liked the challenge of picking out a good song — not just one I liked, but a piece of music that wasn’t too slow or too fast, that had enough quiet and loud moments to build up suspense. I liked mapping out a series of moves I was good at and figuring out how to connect them in a logical way. I liked picking one really difficult new trick and making it the climax of my piece, so I’d have to figure out how to pull it off by showtime.
Over the past eight years, I’ve worked very hard to get good at aerial silks, hoop, and trapeze. That is, good for someone who doesn’t aspire to become a professional circus performer or have any kind of realistic shot at becoming one. Most of the year, when I’m not getting ready for a show, I take classes twice a week and try to do one additional aerial workout if I can. If I wanted to make this my career, I’d need to be practicing for a few hours at least five days a week, slogging through all the conditioning drills I skip when my teacher isn’t around, doing cardio training, taking ballet classes to improve my lines, and stretching daily to get from “flexible-ish for an average person” to dancer-level bendy. The amount of training I’d have to do to be ready to even audition for a professional circus school would be roughly equivalent to a full-time job.
Today, the lines between work and play are increasingly blurred. With the rise — and often, the economic necessity — of the side hustle, many of us have internalized the idea that if we’re any good at something, we should try to make money off it. But as Molly Conway put it in a recent essay for Man Repeller, “It’s okay to love a hobby the same way you’d love a pet; for its ability to enrich your life without any expectation that it will help you pay the rent.”
I will never monetize my circus hobby, but I have no regrets about splurging on that silver sequined leotard. I’ve worn it for four performances now, and I instantly feel more confident whenever I put it on. I’m brighter and shinier than my everyday self. It reminds me that I’m someone who belongs in front of an audience, someone who can hang upside down from my ankles, someone who’s still a little afraid to be in the spotlight but is going to show up anyway and do my best.
Susie Armitage is a writer and editor based in New York.