The Cirque Chronicles 2013

Dear Friends,

I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to realize that my stateside adventures deserve recording (if only for jolting my own memory and entertaining myself when I’m old and immobile) just as much as my international escapades.  This last tour with March Fourth has been quite a roller coaster and when I finally landed back in Portland my first thought was “Damn, I better put that on paper.”  Or screen. Or whatever.  So here I am, snowed in in Portland, wracking my brain for memories of all that’s happened in the last year….it’s not gonna be short, so I hope you’re comfy!

I’m approaching 2 years with the band and the stories and experiences are stacking up beneath me, challenging me, raising me higher, and teaching me more about myself than I knew I wanted to know at the age of 25.  Life on the road, on a tour bus, while teeming with glitter, booze, giggles, puns, and “your mom” jokes, is only occasionally as glamorous as it’s made out to be.  Yet it is possibly the most fascinating and wondrous social experiment I could hope to be a part of.  We often joke that the show is the easiest part of our job, the drink with co-workers after a long day in the office where we just happen to have bunks instead of cubicles, quiet in-house leaders instead of overbearing bosses, and peewee herman dolls and eclectic art from fans on the walls instead of pictures of our families on our desks.  Ok…maybe that’s not the best analogy but sometimes it feels like it’s all we can do to get through long drive days stacked on top of each other, breathing the same stale air, trying to keep all systems running, and wondering how burning this much diesel to play another under-attended show at Joe’s Janky Bar in Middleofnowhere, USA can possibly be considered providing a service to the world.  But the good shows and the energy we cultivate together to share with fans and receive in return is what really fuels us…the web that binds all of us and keeps this magnificent beast lumbering onward, slowly upward.  It’s an honor and a pleasure to be part of something so much bigger than myself, bigger than any one of us, nearly 11 years in the making, and something that has so clearly touched the freaky little hearts and shaken the stagnant bodies of so many people across the country and even around the world.  As I get more comfortable in my role in this big family I have to constantly remind myself not to get too attached to any one small part of it, any one idea, any one show.  Change and transition, as with most of the best things in life, are the only constant and the only way to keep progressing.

Every tour is a little different but also a lot the same. Cities, towns shows, and landscapes begin to blur together, especially when we are in and out in the blink of a (glue-ladden fake) eye (lash)…but what usually stands out are the faces.  The connections we make.  The people we touch.    I think last time I wrote was right after my return from my second trip in Cuba a year ago….I don’t want to go into too much detail about everything as I want to focus on this last trip since it’s fresh…but I’ll touch on a few key things.

After our first Jam Cruise (which was amazing but not quite as amazing as this year) we had a couple months off to recover from the touring season and work on new material for our Anniversary Show and the upcoming tour season.  This was the first time I got to fully participate and even start to take charge of the choreography process since I was the primary touring dancer who lived in Portland.  We created an awesome new acro-marionette piece and a new stilt acro piece in collaboration with my street dancer friends Michael and Icon, a couple new ground dance pieces, and I finally had an opportunity to put my aerial silks skills to use in a piece inspired by my Orisha studies in Cuba.  A week before the show we ran the marionette piece all the way through for the first time and at the very end my ankle got taken out in one fell swoop of a stilt.  Not pretty.  And terribly stressful and upsetting because I didn’t know if I would heal in time to put all the pieces I had been working at so hard on stage or not.  I ended up having to train others in my place and forgo the short tour to Washington in the days leading up to March 4th, and pass on anything involving stilts, but ankle still blue and purple and tightly wrapped I was able to pull off my silks routine and a couple dance numbers.  It was an amazing show and though the first night was a little rough it made me extremely proud to be part of such a talented group of extended family and friends.

Amy, Sid, Aaron and I performing our new Marionette piece at the 10th Anniversary Show. Photo by Geoffrey Squire.

Amy, Sid, Aaron and I performing our new Marionette piece at the 10th Anniversary Show. Photo by Geoffrey Squire.

Spring tour was not particularly memorable except for one day.  Philadelphia.  It was the day we found out the band would be going on a last-minute tour to China and the air was thick with important decisions to be made.  It was unclear if I would get to go or if the opportunity would go to Scarlett, the dancer who had been around since nearly the inception of the band but who had recently moved to New Orleans and in doing so created a space for me to step in.

We pulled up to the venue and a seemingly random but very friendly guy was cleaning the street for us and helped us park the bus.  A frail looking woman also greeted several people on the street outside the venue.  As I was gathering my things to take inside I overheard a conversation that made it clear to me that I had not been chosen for the trip…not my favorite way to get that kind of news.  I immediately had an intense physical reaction and felt a frantic need to be alone.  Aaron saw me leave and knew I had heard.  I walked around the nearby campus and tried to calm myself down…”this is just one opportunity” I tried to tell myself, “there will be more.”  When I returned and opened the door to the bus the woman I’d noticed earlier approached me with a story.  Her husband was in the hospital here but she lived in Jersey and was struggling to cover travel costs back and forth.  I gave her a couple dollars and wished her luck and didn’t think much of it.  Five minutes later I was lying down on a bunk trying to keep from crying when someone knocked loudly on the door.

“Did someone give some woman a dollar?” Katie’s voice echoed back toward me.

I thought maybe I was going to get reprimanded for some reason and I muttered “Yeah it was me.”

“Some guy outside wants to talk to you.”

“It’s not a good time” I countered and settled back into my gloom.

“Well he wanted you to have these” she said as she handed me a pair of pink and black brand new Apple Bottom sneakers.  I was confused.

A few minutes later someone climbed up onto the roof and I followed to get some fresh air.

“Hey” came the voice of the man I had noticed cleaning the street earlier, “it was you wasn’t it.”

I nodded.

“You did a good thing for her so I wanted you to have those shoes.”

“Hmmmm” I thought as I thanked him for his unexpected gesture. “Do you need anything?” I asked.

“It’s cold out here and I been cleaning and watching the street for ya’ll.  I don’t even have any money to buy a cup of coffee.”

I slipped back down into the bus and made him some.

The rest of the day was a mix of disappointment, mostly that I’d found out the way I had, sadness, and a touch of anger, but the pay-it-forward kindness that man had shown helped put it all in perspective.  I may not have gotten to go to China, and it was frustrating to have to spend a lot of extra time teaching Scarlett all the routines I’d been working so hard on for months in one intense week, but hadn’t I learned all her routines when I first joined the band?  Everything comes back around at some point.  And in the end everything worked out for the best…I was fresh to finish off the tour when everyone returned, hacking up Chinese pollution, it ultimately secured my position as one of the primary dancers, and it meant I would get to go on Jam Cruise again…something to look forward to in the cold months of winter when I knew I wouldn’t have enough money to get to a warmer climate on my own.  Besides, I still had a whole summer of touring and some fun down time in Portland ahead of me.

I used a good chunk of that time to try to get my health back on track.  For many years now I’ve found myself immediately catching whatever cold/flu/fever that’s going around and holding onto it for far too long.  I’ve tried many things to no avail and was beginning to wonder if I might be allergic/sensitive to something in my diet.  I wanted to get bloodwork done but couldn’t afford it so I instead embarked on a fascinating elimination diet journey.  I didn’t expect to find much since I hadn’t identified specific symptoms except a weak immune system, so it was a surprise to find myself reacting negatively to citrus (it makes me itchy), and cow dairy (immediate preliminary cold symptoms).  I also felt great without gluten in my diet and have almost entirely kept it out since.  And I feel pretty fabulous all around.  It’s not perfect, I’ve still gotten sick on the 2 big tours…but that’s twice in the last 8 months vs. nearly once a month like before.  Plus I feel like I have a much better understanding of my body and what it needs.  Pretty amazing what happens when we really take the time to check in with ourselves and listen to our bodies.

Oh yeah, and we filmed a music video! Check it out!

A visit to the farm, teaching stilts at our Joy Now youth summer camp, a visit from my parents, and Oregon Country fair were highlights of early summer, which doesn’t really start in Portland until after the 4th of July!  Last year I performed myself sick at Country Fair so it was nice to have minimal commitments this time around…I spent most of my energy parading around the grounds at all hours with my favorite dancers and musicians…Jamie, Michael (who continues to be one of my best friends and allies in everything life, love, music, and dance here in Portland), Hans, Jans, Enaly, Mike and Love of Samba Stilt Circus, plus an awesome new crew of Samba folks from Eugene.  Since I knew I wouldn’t get to go to Burning Man this year I brought a little of the playa to OCF and organized a Critical Stilts event which was a huge success.  Several of our Joy Now Stilters joined us and we took over the fair!

Critical Stilts OCF (Photo by Jeremy Baron)

Critical Stilts OCF (Photo by Jeremy Baron)

Joy Now Arts Project, our music and circus arts program for youth, then consumed me for a week and I fell in love with teaching again.  It was so rewarding to work with such an incredible staff to create a safe and playful space for teenagers to express themselves and discover new passions and talents.  The way they accepted and embraced each other and themselves was inspiring and a direct affirmation of why I am doing all of this.

In August I got back on the bus and while heading up to Canada for the first time I received the devastating news that Maddiel, my dear friend and romance from Cuba, had just died in a tragic accident in Havana.  I was baffled by the loss and struggled to figure out how to grieve for him when his whole family and community was not only so physically far away, but also incredibly difficult to communicate with in general.  As much as I dreaded getting on stage that night and trying to force a smile onto my face, it turned out to be exactly what I needed and exactly what he would have wanted.  He taught me so much about making the most of every moment and seeing the bigger picture (he was incredibly worldly for someone who had never left his little island) and I am forever grateful to him.  When I got back to Portland Jamie and I held a little ceremony in his honor and a few months later I found a way to send reused baby clothes to his sister and her newborn.  We do what we can.

Maddiel watching the sunset over Habana from his favorite spot at the Castillo. Descanse en Paz querido.

Maddiel watching the sunset over Habana from his favorite spot at the Castillo. Descanse en Paz querido.

Finally getting to perform in the bay area for friends and family was a highlight of our hot summer tour, as was navigating the bus through the windy roads of Mendocino county to have the band stay at the farm for a night.  I love it when worlds collide!  Unfortunately the tour ended a bit haphazardly when Sid, our superstar stilt walker, re-injured his knee (ACL) significantly enough to take him out of the last few shows and decide that it was time to retire.  His presence, charisma and sense of adventure have been dearly missed and he will always be part of family…but the show had to go on…and the continuous, miraculous, occasionally clumsy but somehow sufficient passing of the baton (thanks for that metaphor Ariel!) saved us once again.  We made do with 3 dancers for the rest of the shows and luckily had already been working extensively with an acrobat named Phill who was able to bust ass and jump on board in time for the next tour.  Whew!  There has been what seems like an insane amount of baton passing happening this year and though it’s always a challenge to acclimate new people to the endless rules, norms, and nuances of daily living on the bus, its hard to deny that a constant infusion of new energy and ideas is what keeps things exciting and fresh.  Karolina, the newest addition to the dance team, has been an awesome example of that and I am so excited to have her on board.  She is an epic fusion bellydancer and choreographer, has a lot of training in different dance styles, and picked up acrobatics super quick.  We have all been focusing a lot more on partner acro on the ground, which I wasn’t very inspired by at first due to its often stiff cheerleader-like qualities, but having Karo around to help figure out ways to inject more smooth dance qualities into it has been so fun!

October tour felt like a lot of transitioning and adjusting as we had a new and constantly rotating roster.  It was fun to have both Scarlett and Karolina splitting the tour, but then due to last minute added dates I ended up being the only female dancer for the last few shows.  I no longer take for granted how awesome it is to have a partner-in-crime backstage (the boys are there but are on stilts most of the time so it feels different) to check in with and be silly with between pieces.  And just how important it is to have all the feminine energy we can get in this male-dominated group!  New York was awesome and it was a treat to get to hang out with good friends from the Pimps of Joytime and make some new amazing connections at my favorite dance spot, Bembe.  Our first time in North Carolina, touring with a fun group called Ganstagrass (yea that’s right) was amazing too.  This was also the first tour that I instigated our Massage Trade and it worked like a charm.  One of our managers, Faith, had the brilliant idea to offer to trade massage therapists tickets to the show in exchange for working on the band backstage.  I started putting it out on our facebook pages and immediately got a great response.  Everyone in the band got at least a ½ hour session by the end of the tour and we made some amazing new friends and are slowly building a network of body workers around the country.  Now I’ve added a trade for fresh eggs to the mix and hope to also add fresh veggies when the weather gets warmer.  Bringing back the barter system!

March Fourth takes over the Andy Warhol Silver Cloud exhibit in Arlington!

March Fourth takes over the Andy Warhol Silver Cloud exhibit in Arlington!

After tour I had a quick week to recover in Portland before catching a ride down to the bay with good friend and fellow salsa dancer Cora as she made her way back to Boonville from Canada.  There were a lot of delays and setbacks but Aaron, Karo, Phill, and I finally found ourselves in Oakland with 24/7 access to a training space at American Steel thanks to our former Merch Lady Extraordinaire Anne Olivia.  It was super inspiring and rejuvenating to be back in the Bay Area, staying with the amazing Claire Jee, and training and taking classes from some incredible dancers and acrobats!  I was especially invigorated by the love and welcoming energy we felt from the SambaFunk crew.  I’d been to an event they’d put on once and loved it but didn’t fully appreciate what they do until I took a crew to Theo’s dance class and felt the Axé!  He did such a good job of making everyone feel comfortable and like part of the family and reminded me what dance and music are all about: creating community!  A private Jamaican dancehall class with my good friend Atreau that lead to an amazing night out where we got everyone dancing until long after the house lights came on, and an epic Halloween reunion with my Samba Stilt Circus family were other highlights.  Not to mention that Claire got all my friends to pitch in a buy me a plane ticket home so I could stay to celebrate our birthdays.  We joined forces with our friends from Afrolicious and stilted and danced the night away at their show in SF.  So many amazing new friends and connections…I love the bay and the possibilities for collaboration and integration of diverse communities it fosters…I can definitely see myself based there again in the near future.

First class with SambaFunk!

First class with SambaFunk!

November and December were filled with lots of training and time spent developing routines to some of the new M4 songs, a quick trip home for Christmas (so good to be with family for the holidays-it’s been a while!) and lots of fun dancing adventures in Portland.

CONGRATULATIONS!  You’ve made it through a recap of an entire year with me!  I didn’t realize how significant this particular one has been for me until I started trying to put it all down…and I haven’t even started talking about this last tour…are you ready?

Mary and me ready to set sail on Jam Cruise!

Mary and me ready to set sail on Jam Cruise!

First of all, Jam Cruise was epic, and also an epically insane way to start a month long winter tour.  It was preceded by a long drive to Jackson, Wyoming for a packed New Years Eve show in the snow where we got a chance to fine-tune all our new material before another long journey to the Caribbean, where we performed it in the most extreme conditions I can imagine for acrobatics.  Yep, our first show on the Pool deck of the cruise ship took place on choppy seas in crazy high winds, but at least it wasn’t raining like last year 🙂  It was all most people could do, even the sober ones, to stay on their feet as the boat pitched back and forth and the wind blew equipment and loose accessories to and fro.  Luckily we’d had several days to get our sea legs and we knew enough to practice and prepare on board this time.  And somehow we pulled it all off with only a few minor hitches.  A couple tricks were a little shaky, but only noticeable to us, Mary’s stilt kicked a light mid-trick, but softy, and I came away with a giant bruise on my thigh from slamming into the bottom of Aarons stilt in the marionette routine before very narrowly avoiding whacking my head on a speaker while swinging up to their shoulders.  Our preparation paid off in another way as well…we were practicing our routines in the theatre just before Bootsy Collins’ soundcheck and members of his Funk Unity Band approached us in awe.  One of the back up singers Zach was particularly excited about what we were doing and immediately started talking about collaborating!  “Well…we come with a 16 person band” we said.  “Come check out our show!” That night we were all completely blown away by their performance in the theatre and when we hit the pool deck the next day and the theatre the following day at least half the band, including Booty’s amazing wife Patti (who was filming our show from backstage to show to Bootsy and kept saying we were “Keeping the funk alive!”) showed up full force to support us.  The next few days were spent forging amazing new friendships with them and so many other talented and inspiring musicians and fans.  Orgone, Dumpstafunk, the Wailers, Monophonics, and Thievery Corporation to name a few!  Mary and I also had an awesome time participating in Positive Legacy (an organization that reaches out to and collaborates with the communities we visit to support and foster music education) on our stilts again, this time in Jamaica.  Learning dance moves from a group of young girls in attendance and helping raise money for a community recording studio made me feel slightly better about the excessive, wasteful nature of cruise ship + music festival culture.  Even though our theatre show wasn’t super well attended (we had stiff competition from Dumpstafunk’s only set on the pool deck) and I didn’t get to do my silks routine (somehow the release never got drawn up even though I’d been emailing production for months), I still walked away from the experience super proud of the band and inspired and uplifted by all the support we received and the connections we made.

Zach and Mike of the Funk Unity Band rockin our Mini Hats!

Zach and Mike of the Funk Unity Band rockin our Mini Hats!

When we disembarked we were all completely knackered, but luckily we had a couple of chill days off in Florida before hitting it hard again and working our way towards colder climates. Unfortunately there was already some tension building on the dance team from a couple of misunderstandings that happened around scheduling rehearsals and such on the boat, combined with the extra stress of trying to figure out how to cover the stage tech position for the first time.  We were able to reward Karolina for her hard work and training by bringing her on the tour, but could only justify having a 5th dancer on board if it allowed our roadie, Jack, to spend most of the show at the sound board…and in the end we could only afford to pay her very minimally.  This basically just meant that one of the dancers had to be watching the stage in case anything went wrong and moving the microphones as dance numbers required.  Not a hard job, but when you’re trying to get on and off stilts, change costumes, place props, and not to mention physically and mentally prepare yourself to perform, it gets a little complicated.  Mary wasn’t into the idea from the beginning, which I totally understand–none of us really get paid enough to take on an extra job for free, and the boys were on stilts most of the time, so the responsibility primarily fell to Karolina and myself.  Once we got into a groove it was pretty much fine, but it was frustrating for the two of us (and mostly her because she isn’t doing as many routines yet) to have to compromise stage time and preparedness almost every night.  We felt so bad that the boys and I started a KaroFund and donated part of our per-diems to her.

The tension came to a head when we played the PGA resort (for a rather different kind of audience than we are used to, as you can imagine) and multiple miscommunications took place.  I’m not going to go into detail or give names because I think everyone deserves a fair chance to tell their own story, but I do want to reflect what I learned from my experience.

After the show a lot of people were really upset and we all just tried to get some space from each other to sort through our emotions.  After a tense morning Aaron and I finally got a chance to really talk and were able to eventually come to a place of owning our sides of the misunderstandings we’d been having and figuring out how to avoid them in the future (check, check in, double check!), which greatly eased my frustration.  Unfortunately it seemed not everyone that needed to have similar conversations had the opportunity, energy, or willingness to do so (understandably–it’s extremely hard to get any privacy on tour, and so much energy gets consumed in just trying to take care of your basic needs and put on a good show every night) so tension remained high.   It didn’t help that me, Karolina, and Mary all got super sick right in succession…I was somehow able to perform (with snot dripping down my face) every show but they each had to take one night off, luckily at different times.  Many others caught the bug too, and just when it seemed like things were getting better and the air was starting to clear a little, the bus broke down and we had to do the last 4 shows in 2 vans and a box truck.  There’s no better time for questioning yourself and your commitment to things in your life than when you’re exhausted, frustrated, ill, and piled on top of each other.  And when you’re living and working in such close quarters with this many people, it can be very difficult to mask your emotions.  We all go through it at some point, especially since many of us are barely making ends meet with our salaries, and it doesn’t help when you can very clearly see and feel others around you doing the same, and in some cases deciding to move on and focus on other projects.  I think many of us hit some pretty major lows on this tour and some people handled it more gracefully than others.  I think the biggest lesson I learned is that a willingness to communicate and work through whatever is challenging you is an absolutely essential part of making a social experiment like this successful.  It’s never easy, and sometimes it takes being willing to be totally vulnerable and frighteningly far away from your comfort zone, but in the end the sooner you can express your needs, acknowledge the needs and struggles of others, and take responsibility for your role in whatever is not working for you, the more positive the experience will be for everyone involved (because in this case everyone is involved, directly or indirectly, whether they want to be or not).  I find myself in a constant struggle to find the balance between not letting other peoples’ emotions and behavior dictate my own (we can’t control how others act, but we can control how we re-act) and standing up for myself and making sure the people close to me are treating me how I deserve to be treated and vice versa.  When I’ve tried my best and still feel like I can’t find a happy medium in any given situation, sometimes it means something has to give…or at least shift or change forms.  The amazing thing about being a part of a team like this is that it’s so much bigger than any one of us, and when someone needs a break, or something breaks, or someone needs help, we are fabulously talented at finding ways to support each other and fill in the gaps.  But before those gaps can be filled they first have to be effectively identified and expressed so that we know what to fill them with.  And that’s also the catch.  Strong teams that can function well under stressful conditions require good, honest communication, and good, honest communication in stressful situations creates a strong team.  I’m finding more and more that that’s where compassion and consideration can come into play.  We all have little things that annoy the shit out of us, and we all have little things that contribute to making our day run smoothly and feel more enjoyable.  Taking the time to learn what those things are for the people that we interact with the most (whether or not we feel particularly close or connected to them) and making the extra effort to apply that knowledge at key moments can make a huge difference in everyones’ experience.

Somewhere in Iowa...making the most of a wait for a bus mechanic...

Somewhere in Iowa…making the most of a wait for a bus mechanic…

The other amazing thing about this group is that it belongs to everyone, and because of that, our audience is often able to save us even when it feels like everything is falling to pieces.  Performing with Rebirth Brass Band in Georgia and North Carolina gave us the opportunity to combine our draws to create super-charged fun experiences for everyone, and Colorado, as always, showed up so strong to support us and show us a good time as we struggled to make the pieces together without our beloved bus!  Finally getting to New Mexico and getting to spend due time with a special connection in Santa Fe was incredibly invigorating for me personally, and I hope to get back to that beautiful sky and thirsty but very much alive landscape very soon because it stole a piece of my heart.

So we survived, as a team, and finally made it back to Portland for a break (we got to fly home a day early…a bit of a silver lining!), a crazy NorthWest blizzard, and a little down time to reflect and prepare for our 11th anniversary show.  I’m feeling super lucky to have a yummy room in a beautiful old house with awesome roommates and so much good food to return to!  It feels like a lot of big shifts and transitions are happening for people all around, so I’m really grateful for this time to remember how to be with myself, support and be supported by all my communities, and cultivate practices that will allow me to continue to do this work because despite all the challenges, it really is an honor.  Joy Now Bitches!

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