That Daring Young Woman on the Flying Trapeze
Going off to “join the circus” taught aerialist Eileen Little about personal strength and overcoming adversity.
One hand, one foot, one move at a time. Let the silks take you. Climb up with your legs intertwined into two silk cloths like our minds often are into our busy lives. How would it feel to tumble down only to be caught by your own inner strength?
Take Eileen Little’s Aerial Silks class and find out.
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“If you told me ten years ago I would be in the circus I would say there is no chance of that,” says Eileen Little, who earned her Masters degree in acting at the National Theater Conservatory in Colorado.
Today, not only is Little teaching aerial classes at Treetop Yoga Studio in Gloucester and ESH Circus Arts in Boston, she also performs with The Boston Circus Guild, Seaside Circus, The Traveling Circus Troupe, Girls on Trapeze, and Fight or Flight.
She has joined the circus.
Upon finishing her degree in acting and moving to New York City, Little realized she did not actually enjoy the business side of acting. Who knew that the required dance trapeze unit during her MFA studies would become a major part of her life?
While living in New York, Little co-founded Fight or Flight Theater. Fight or Flight not only teaches trapeze to actors but also has been producing visual storytelling, staging, and productions since 2008. Many of the shows are done at Fight or Flight are of plays like Shakespeare’s Henry V (see video below), with trapeze incorporated to add emotion and action.
If you’ve ever taken a biology class you probably know about the human fight or flight response. The way our body reacts to a stressful situation by releasing stress hormones and prepares to react to that situation, we either prepare our bodies to face the situation or remove ourselves as fast as possible. It is not ironic that this is also the name of the theater group Little cofounded in New York. It’s a place where actors create productions that incorporate the trapeze.
After launching Fight or Flight in 2008, Little studied at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vermont. In 2012, she began teaching circus arts in Somerville, Mass., before going to Boston and then, eventually, Gloucester, where she still teaches silks and trapeze.
Little decided to make the move back to Gloucester after coming home for a reunion and, as she describes, “falling in love with the boy next door.” She now lives in Gloucester with her husband, Nathan Cohen, the cofounder of the band What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?, and their three-year-old son.
Looking up and pointing to the silks when he sees them, Little’s son hopes to one day learn trapeze himself. Little’s teaching style is basic: she believes that trapeze is for everyone. She hears people saying they could never fly through the air because they can’t even do a pull up. But, Little says, “that’s exactly why you should come to class. Anyone can become aerialist after all.”
Little received her MFA in acting and had never previously been on trapeze. She sees aerial as a blend of art, a good workout, and “a way to make improvements and physically help you conquer battles.”
Most people hear circus and trapeze and imagine ringmasters, clowns, and people walking on stilts. Little’s approach shows us that trapeze is more than a circus performance. It is about growing stronger and learning to overcome setbacks.
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Treetop Yoga is located in the midst of a few industrial buildings off of Route 127 in Gloucester. Inside, a peacefully serene yoga studio sets the tone. The aerial studio is the first room you see. There is a long mirror on the left side and four sets of silks hanging above mats on the hardwood floor.
Little began teaching at Treetop Yoga in the fall of 2016. She teaches six-week aerial classes for all ages “from seven to 100.” The circus kids and tweens classes incorporate basic juggling and partner acro, as well as the trapeze and silks. There is an adult trapeze class, too. Little offers private sessions upon request.
The level-two class caps at four students, which Little believes allows for proper instruction and safety. A typical class begins with a 15-minute warmup period followed by a 45-minute practice, and concluding with 15 minutes of conditioning.
Portfolio: Eileen Little in Action
Little encourages students to try new techniques while allowing room for mistakes and growth. Students are supported in trying their own techniques when they feel ready, while being supported to step out of their comfort zones. Often, new skills and techniques do not turn out as planned. As in life, sometimes students truly get stuck hanging by a thread (a long and thick one!).
But Little is always there to help and spot her students, allowing room to make mistakes.
Recently, Kasia Mirowska, a yogi from Salem (via Poland), and Ava Stasiw, an actress and performer from New York, came to learn from Little. Indeed, students have come from all over the world to see her in action and to learn from her skills. Mirowska completed a beautiful spin, climbing to the top of the silks and letting herself fall like a Jacob’s Ladder.
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Eileen Little makes it all look so easy.
Aerial skills demand strength, coordination, and awareness, but Little’s patient, encouraging teaching technique inspires everyone to hang from a thread. Or a silk. Making art from with silk and limbs, becoming one with the motion, aerial and trapeze teach rewarding and beautiful lessons.
At the end of her session I had the opportunity to try a few techniques myself — with Eileen’s guidance, of course. Her patience and encouragement truly inspired me to want to learn aerial skills myself. But let me tell you, it is truly not as easy as it looks. I could barely hold myself up, let alone fall from the top of the silk without breaking a bone. But as Little notes, anyone can learn, aerial and trapeze is for everyone.
I am encouraged myself to take further classes, not only aerial classes but to try something new. There was something about the way that you make art out of your body and the silks. You become one and no longer think about anything else except the way that you feel in that moment.
Dana Smith is a photographer based in Boston. His photos appear in publications like The New York Times Magazine, Time, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Fortune, and Yankee. an instructor at the New England School of Photography in Boston since 1999. He is the chair of the editorial department at the New England School of Photography, and also teaches numerous workshops. (Additional photographs courtesy of Eileen Little).