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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bent out of shape

My piece on training to be an acrobat in today's Irish Examiner

There will be even more clowning around than usual on the streets of Dublin this weekend when the Urban Circus hits town for day of stilt walking, juggling and all-round acrobatic fun.

If you think that your job requires you to be flexible, to stretch yourself, to bend over backwards, and to climb all over people to reach the top, then spare a thought for those circus performers who must literally deploy those skills for our entertainment.

I had a taste of the circus life earlier this month, when I took part in a special two hour acrobatic skills workshop during the Temple Bar Circus Festival.

“Don’t worry, it will be easy,” said the marvellously malleable teacher Ali Mswabi, as I nervously changed into loose-fitting clothing in the Ss Michael&Johns above the Cultivate centre in Temple Bar on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

There were four girls and two other guys taking part in the workshop too, and, at that moment, we all shared a look that united us in one thought: Easy for you to say dude.

“Time for the warm up,” Ali exclaimed. A cold dread gripped my stomach. Oh no, I thought. This is beginning to sound a lot like exercise. The huge difference, though, was that this was actually fun as opposed to flapping away on a treadmill staring though dead eyes at the calorie counter on the screen.

We started by jogging laps in the hall, and after that Ali put us through all sorts of muscle-stretching and balancing contortions. I was very chuffed with myself for being able to bend the whole way back while crouched on my hunkers (though that’s sure to hurt come winter time!).

I was already sweating buckets as Ali lined us up for the first stunt: the handstand. Ali, who is originally from Somalia but resident in Cork for seven years now, has been at this since he was 8 years old. Therefore, he was more than qualified to deal with someone like me, a klutz with the apparent agility of Jabba the Hut and about as much co-ordination as the Red Cow roundabout.

He partnered me with a girl named Roisin, who had to lightly hold my legs as I stood on my hands for a full minute. I was scared of doing it too quickly and kicking her in the face so it took three attempts until I get it right. Once up, I straightened my body totally, as instructed, and ignored the quivering in my arms and the rush of blood to my head to hold out for the 60 seconds. Success!

Next, Ali got us to do a cartwheel, something I haven’t attempted since I was a slightly-more dextrous eight-year-old. He partnered this with a tumble, done the proper way by bending and touching your toes, arching your body into a triangle shape, then turning yourself head over heels using the back of your neck, as opposed to the top of your head, as the fulcrum.

So far, so good, but just as I was about to lay back for a lengthy rest on my laurels, I realised that all that had come up until now was just the baby moves. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, for my next trick: the amaaaaazing flyspring! This involved using your hands to jump head over heels and land on your back - or, if you can manage it, your feet - on a mat.

I was in the zone at this stage, so I tried both. On the first go, I lost my nerve just as I was about to delve into the propelling handstand and so ended up crashing sideways. Next time, however, I made it over onto my back, and quite fluidly too if I do say so myself. Feeling cocky, I attempted it again and this time I finished it in a half-upright position. Ali cheered and I wished I had a copybook to present to get a gold star.

Ali then produced a long red skipping rope. My heart sank because I realised we were entering the logical/co-ordination-heavy segment of the class. I’m ashamed to admit that I conform to the stereotype of the man who can’t multitask: I can’t walk and type a text message at the same time, so how will I fare trying to count myself into jumps over a rope?

We started off by practicing to run through the moving rope without getting hit, followed by performing one skip and then jumping out of the way. Once I’d gotten the hang of that, Ali encouraged me to get down into the press-up position, and try to jump the rope that way. Needless to say I spent the next five minutes getting tangled up and cursing like a sailor out of frustration, but on my last attempt I managed to nail down three consecutive push-up jumps.

Confirmation of my utter clumsiness and illogicality was achieved with the next trick: juggling three hats. It looked (though doesn’t sound) simple enough: wear one on your head and hold one each in your out-stretched arms. Then lightly toss the right one to the left, using the right hand to move the hat off your head, replacing it with the hat from your left hand, leaving that one free to catch the hat thrown from the right (my head hurts just trying to explain it).

This was a complete disaster. At one point I think I’d mastered it, until one of the girls pointed out that I’d actually dropped one of the hats and I was just doing it with two. To bolster my plummeting self-esteem, Ali stood next to me and put an arm around my shoulder, halving the complicated manoeuvres. All these feats are so much easier with a trained acrobat doing most of the work.

Finally, it was time to start forming some shapes from the bodies of all eight of us. I started with the flag: standing on Ali’s crouched thighs, holding onto his lower arms, and leaning back to billow in the wind like the move’s namesake. We then tried the same trick with Ali resting against the up-stretched legs of a third person, while I hooked my foot around his neck so I could lean back even further. It worked too.

Of course, what would any acrobat workshop be without building a human pyramid? My group actually managed to build three separate ones, all with me on top, but of course. The first few times I tried to be as dainty as I could, profusely apologising to the others as I clamoured all over them, the vertebrae of their spines tickling my feet.

Somehow we managed to hold steady each time, at least long enough to get a picture anyway, before I ended up tumbling backwards onto the mat and the whole structure collapsed into a fit of giggles. Afterwards, I was flushed and sweaty, but as I strutted home, I couldn’t help but pat myself on the back - for I can reach back there now - and think: I’m flipping great.

*The Dublin Urban Circus takes place this Saturday (August 1) from 12-7pm at Wolfe Tone Park, Dublin1. See for details. To contact Ali and his acrobatic group see

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