Grounded with Jenny Tufts
my inefficient but scenic route into the aerial world.
Hello aerial aficionados! I’m Jenny. I identify as a woman, a weirdo, a recovering perfectionist, an aerial hoop specialist, a chronic dabbler, a creator, an athlete, a lover of books, a socialist, a master dog snuggler, and a perpetual foreigner. This is the story of my inefficient but scenic route into the aerial world.
My first flirtation with aerial arts took the form of weekly flying trapeze classes at Trapeze School New York, which was a 40-minute walk from my freshman dormitory at NYU and my sole claim to being an interesting person at 19 years old. Fresh out of small-town Vermont (the Ireland of the US: green, charming, and populated mostly by livestock), I was a quiet scholarship student whose primary drive was finding work that allowed me to travel. I thought the sensible road to that goal was a job with the US State Department, so I studied politics. Trapeze may have been my passion, but if I had any ambitions at all in that realm they were limited to a tentative hope of one day teaching for TSNY just so I could feed my flying addiction for free.
By my second year of college, I’d run out of money for flying trapeze but gotten my wish for travel; I spent the whole year studying (and working as what my grandmother disapprovingly deemed ‘a bar maid’) in London. There I met a group of fire-spinning hippies who opened the door to a new corner of circus, one accessible to anyone with five pounds to chip in for kerosene. I’ll always be grateful to hula hoops, and the early YouTube hoopers who taught me, for showing me a way into the world of circus while aerial was geographically or financially out of reach. Over the next few years I took my plastic hoop to raves, to parks, to festivals and house parties, and by means of this prop which gave me permission to move creatively, I started to identify as ‘that girl who does circus.’ After graduation in 2014 my dreams of travel remained, but thanks in part to the many photos of me at Burning Man floating around the internet, a career in politics was blessedly off the table.
Cut to 2015… A perk of being a New Yorker in those years was the deluge of tech startups testing on locals. When ClassPass entered the scene, it offered unlimited classes at over 300+ New York studios for $99 per month, the only stipulation being that you couldn’t attend the same studio more than three times in each billing cycle. For someone with an insatiable appetite for variety, it was nothing less than a challenge. I ended up taking 186 fitness classes in 186 days – sometimes piling two or even three in a row in order to compensate for days I missed. Through ClassPass, I got to not only barge into the cult-like caves of upscale stationary cycling, but also fly on Streb’s petit volant, achieve my first pull-up in aerial yoga, and touch for the first time an aerial hoop. Those six months gave me a crash course in how to use my body, and a foundation of strength and flexibility with which I was able to better enjoy aerial arts. I quit ClassPass after those six months and instead spent every evening I could get away from work at Body & Pole, where incredible teachers like Brenna Bradbury and Summer Lacy gave me a solid foundation in the apparatus I never dreamed I would one day perform professionally.
In autumn 2015 I moved to Madrid to become an English language teaching assistant, spending two evenings per week at Centro Acrobatico Fedriani learning fabric and hoop (but mostly fabric – neither teacher liked hoop and I didn’t have the vocabulary or courage to complain). Craving coaching in English, but still eager to see more of the world, 2016 took me to Melbourne, where a job as a live-in nanny gave me unprecedented time and resources to kick my circus obsession to the next level.
I cannot adequately put into words my love for the Australian circus community. I’m sure the same kind of atmosphere exists elsewhere, but for me it was Australia. For three days I walked around Adelaide Fridge with my jaw on the floor – I had no idea there were so many flavours of circus. Who knew that a show with two people, the production value of a sturdy pair of boots, and not a single ‘high level skill’ could have me alternately in stitches of laughter and tearing up? I saw skill worthy of Cirque du Soleil on stages smaller than a dining room table, where the acrobats performed in messy ponytails and enviably comfortable-looking jeans. I saw skills I’d done a million times performed in such a creative context that I still rave about them. A friend snuck me into the artists’ club, where I shyly sipped a beer and marvelled at how friendly, how normal, these miraculous, untouchable people seemed.
I was hooked. I signed up for a series of festivals in Melbourne run by Spin Circus: that first year as a paying participant, the next two years as a latte-slinging volunteer, and finally in 2020, as a teacher. This community, home to a magical combination of both very high technical skill AND a dizzying generosity toward sharing that skill, allowed me to dream for the first time that maybe, if I worked really hard, I too could still have a chance at a performance career.
In 2018 I moved to Berlin, and for the first time since I was 15, found myself unemployed. To get gigs in a big city like Berlin, you need 1) good connections, or 2) incredible skill, and ideally both – but I had neither yet. I felt socially isolated, fraudulent in my art form with a paltry resume, and guilty for relying on my partner to support me – but I trained like mad. I read every resource I could get my hands on, trained and cross-trained everywhere I could, and spent an embarrassing number of hours pouring over instagram: sharing my progress and chatting with other aerialists. Berlin is quite a hub for circus artists, and through instagram I was able to offer a room to several of my online heroes traveling through town. By opening my home to these virtual acquaintances, I got to meet and train with Rebecca Starr, Jenna Ciotta, and Aisling Ní Cheallaigh (the last of whom came to stay and – to my delight – never left!) – among many others. For all its pitfalls, I can’t discount instagram’s role in connecting me with a vibrant aerial community.
Eventually I got a job teaching at a commercial studio in Berlin, and through instagram found myself booking workshops across Europe and beyond. And as my online audience grew, I felt a chasm widening between How Good The Internet Thought I Was (measured by likes, saves and comments) and How Good I Thought I Was (measured by real life performance experience, which was next to nothing). Even as internet popularity lifted me into the hallowed realm of Full Time Paid Aerialist – a world I had hardly dreamed I would ever enter – I felt like a fraud for having gained this traction via instagram as opposed to a respectable portfolio of contracts. I swore that 2020 would be the year I’d actually pivot away from the safe space of teaching, and toward performance – and in February, out of the blue, I was offered a 6-month contract with the company of my dreams.
…Well, we all know how that went, right?
The day I realised COVID-19 was going to be an inescapable world event, I was at a wedding in the hills outside Los Angeles with Aisling. We cancelled our California workshop tour to get the last flight back to Europe, and because I knew I wouldn’t be able to train or work under Berlin’s lockdown, we made the last-minute decision to both go hunker down in Sligo. Robbed of both my hectic teaching career and the big contract, and with the incredible luck of having access to an aerial space, I just trained. I trained to injury, trained to tears, trained relentlessly for no particular goal other than to get better and discover new choreography that felt true to my developing style. I made a Patreon, and to my surprise and delight, people liked reading what I had to say. Despite feeling aimless and unproductive on a daily basis, I made more complete, filmed acts in 2020 than in all my other years of circus combined. Most need a lot of work before they’re shared widely. One or two I’m quite proud of. All of them were worth making.
In August, my little quarantine-family moved permanently to Sligo, where I’m chasing permanent residence and, in a few years, the golden ticket of an EU passport. I’ve started working with Fidget Feet, a pint-sized aerial dance company with dreams the size of Texas and more heart than you can shake a stick at. This year I’ll turn 30, still not having performed much at all – but the stage is set, and for the first time I feel ready. For the first time in a decade, I feel grounded. At home. I reckon this decade’s gonna be a good one.
Where to find Jenny online:
FB: Jenny Tufts