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An Artist’s Body is its Beating Heart.

Beating Heart
By Martin Frenette

It isn’t the big bad wolf, the wicked witch of the West, nor the monster under their bed, but the physical therapist telling them to rest that frightens stage performers. The reality of a break goes far beyond the financial consequences that it might have and being deprived of claps and cheers. Asking their body to stay still is like asking their heart to stop beating. Each has its own ways and little secrets to stay connected to what really is their motor, both on and off stage. Rehearsals, exercising classes, cool down moments, meals, even simple walks in the park are all planned around maintaining a healthy body.

There are as many definitions of what a healthy body means as there are stage performers. For Aimée Hancock, a healthy body is one that feels joy, gives pleasure and allows one to do what they want to do. Whether that means jumping around, carrying a child, or running until they drop. At 45, the Salem native reflects on two decades in the circus industry to conclude that gaining experience does not mean wearing and tearing to the bone. Finding a balance between intensity and restorative practice is just as important in order to feel capable in the long run. Ironically, being able to train six hours a day is this circus coach’s current dream!

“Oh my God! I’d feel amazing! Staying active and in tune with my body is a big part of who I am, but finding the time for it has become harder. Especially as a full-time coach and mother! Having the luxury to manage my care and reconnect with my body would really be amazing though!”

beating heart

Listening to the redhead describing her connection to her body throughout the different chapters of her life, one fact stands out. One that is true for the quasi totality of stage performers: moving makes us feel alive! Aimée’s voice is wrapped in this tangible joy that physical activity brings and has brought her. It’s in the way she recalls doing handstands or tumbling wherever she could as a young gymnast, soaring through the air on the flying trapeze for the very first time, or how she spots and helps students getting through new tricks. The deep joy and satisfaction she gets from working her body are the thread that weaves into each and every word. After exploring the violin and gymnastics, it really is through her practice of circus arts that she found her true self and the best connections.

“Even though I loved watching dance and taking good classes, circus trainings centred me. It gave me a powerful sense of stillness and an intensity that I have yet to encounter elsewhere. Where dance felt good and playful, a yummy challenge if you will, circus’ intensity pulled me into myself.”

Respect seems to be right after joy when it comes to this never-ending feeling good quest. It’s with a subtle wink and a somewhat shameful laugh that she admits having never been one of those who diligently warm-up before shows. In the same breath, the aerialist points out that respecting one’s body is something very personal, bound to change from one artist to another. Besides the obvious generous amounts of water, foods that feel good at the moment and getting good sleep, the Vermont-based underlines that respecting your body also means always listening to what it has to say. Especially since its needs inevitably change as it gains in age and experience.

“Having a moment of stillness in my chair before shows has always fed me more than any physical regimen. Every artist should listen to their body and do what feels good for them, what feels good for them at that moment in time. Building such a relationship is a very personal and intimate process.”

beating heart

Regardless of how early or late they start, actors, aerialists and other stage athletes all develop some form of dependence to feeling physically spent, a peculiar joy from having used every ounce of their daily energy. Pain and tiredness are often ignored as they endlessly repeat the same movements, building physical and psychological strength in the process. Some say that endlessly repeating the same thing is a sign of mental illness, while others argue that sustaining and moving over pain is a sign of mental strength. Added up, these two theories form a pretty balanced mind!

As for the field and specialty in which such minds can be pushed and best express themselves, enthusiasm and cautiousness meet in the dedicated instructor’s voice and gaze as she explains that one’s body can be an influential decision factor, but it cannot be the only one.

“Some are clearly built for hand balancing or ballet, but one can still find their way even if that ain’t the case. Being well-connected with your body definitely makes the decision process easier. Being able to bring a discipline to match a body’s given talents matters just as much as that artist’s body. Furthermore, I’d say that the art form is more artistic and that breaking the mold feels far more present than it used to, with circus at the very least.”

beating heart

Artists have no given time frames and no expiration date when it comes to connecting with their bodies and their given talents. However, these bodies are bound to change, the same way that their energy and approach do from one part to another.

One must acknowledge those changes to remain healthy and well-connected to their motor. Some experience a certain lack of inner stability and control over limbs as their resumé lengthens and a sense of separation with one’s self can be felt if one does not take the time to witness these important changes from show to show or from a center stage position to one in the shadow.

“Maintaining what they need to do in a show is a performer’s main concern. Survival and growth best describe how they stay in tune with their body. As a coach and a mother who has carried three kids, it is about the ability to move freely again. I am craving deep, reliable connections and know that those can give me more power than big biceps!”

All those little injuries that were once barely noticeable feel far more present when the physical workload loses intensity. To avoid this feeling of separation with their own self, performers must embrace this new rhythm and understanding its impact on their bodies. Feeling physically satisfied and fulfilled is still possible when a show is selling less, a tour gets shortened or while pursuing off-stage aspiration.

Young artists tend to train more, to push and be pushed in different ways than seasoned professionals. They won’t stop until they can no longer lift their arms, beaten to a pulp! Physical satisfaction and this feeling of having to top yourself often are replaced with refinement, fine-tuning, and expression as artists grow older. The motor and its user remain the same, but the use is significantly different as time goes by.

Before putting her youngest kid down for a nap, Aimee concludes in a joyful outburst that this physical movement lifestyle’s different incarnations gave her everything and made her who she is. Looking at the way her two year old was spinning on those aerial straps in the living room, chances are that she also feels that motivation and physical activity are very tightly linked!

beating heart

Also by Martin Frenette:

Actors: Listen up to Some Good Advice

Advice for Performers: Read Your Contract!

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