The Circus Aerialist Who Doesn’t Take Risks

The first thing that Tisha Tinsman told me when we met was that she wasn’t a risk taker.  We were checking out shoes at the consignment store where we had both wandered into.  There was something about the way her laughter carried across the store, the way her face illuminated when she smiled, the way she picked up the highest-heeled, strappiest boots, that made me question her statement. I hovered near her as she sorted through the boots, hoping for another clue to her secret.

From a big heap of shoes she pulled out a knee-high pair of size 11 leather stiletto boots and handed them to me. I giggled. “These are the kind of boots I imagine circus performers would wear on their days off!”

She smiled at me with mischievous eyes, “Ah. If only they had my size.”

And, just like that I had my answer.  For 11 years, Tisha Tinsman worked as an aerialist in the Big Apple Circus.  Her husband was a clown and their two little girls were raised in circus trailers amongst the powdery smell of clown make up and roar of the crowds.

Each night, Tisha would climb 25 feet into the air, spinning and twirling over a captive audience of thousands, as the sequins in her dazzling array of costumes reflected the sparkle in her eyes.

“What were you thinking about as you flew through the air?” I asked her.

“Well, the thing about performing is that you don’t have to think.  You are so trained, so disciplined… that it becomes like second nature.  It’s like… You get up, you wash your face, you hang 30 feet in the air…. It’s just something you do.  Sometimes when I was up there I’d find myself thinking things like, what should I make for dinner?”

As someone who is terrified of heights, the idea of being so calm while in the air was just unfathomable.  This petite woman clearly possessed a fearlessness that escaped me… which is why her next comment surprised me even more.

“I’m actually afraid of heights too.” She laughed.

But… how could that be?  How could a woman who is terrified of heights, a woman who professes to not be a risk taker make a living flying through the air?

“It’s all training.  Practice.  Discipline. I’m prepared.  I do my work. Like any other job, it becomes routine.”

But.. still.. Wasn’t it exciting?  Wasn’t flying over an audience the ultimate feeling of freedom?

“There really wasn’t much room for improvisation. The choreography was custom-designed to the music, rather than my tricks. Sometimes I would start to get into a tizzy because a rope would twist or the music would get behind and I knew I wasn’t going to come out even.  But, I was working without a net or safety loop, so If the music ended and I’m still hanging from my neck, oh well!”

As unsettling as that sounded, her description of the circus still offered a glimpse into a world of magic and illusion that doesn’t seem possible in a more conventional life. I asked her more about what daily life in the circus entails.

“Riding wet elephants or a wet horse.  It’s cold and damp, but you smile and no one knows. It’s an illusion. Although the shows are exciting, you’re always living out of a suitcase. Each night I’d come home to our trailer where one kid was crawling, one was ready for kindergarten.  There were toys everywhere. It was cramped and sometimes uncomfortable.”

I still wasn’t satisfied with her answer.  As a person who always craves adventure and magic, who is constantly fighting a restless pull that can make the suburbs unbearable, I idealize the circus as a fairy tale place where anything can happen.  I was baffled as to how she didn’t seem to realize how lucky she was to have spent her life in a fairy tale.

“When the lights are on and you’re in the ring, you’re up there feeling amazing and you don’t feel any pain. It IS a fairy tale.  But, then, afterwards, you go backstage and you remember that you just bent backwards and put your foot behind your head and you’re in pain.  It’s reality.”

But… even if she had to face reality after the show, there was that fairy tale while she was in the ring.  Every day.  Often several times a day.  I wondered how she had adjusted to life after the circus.

“It’s difficult without that rush of adrenaline. Now it’s reality… when I walk outside, no one is going to clap for me.”

It’s that taste of applause that motivated Tisha to keep finding ways to bring excitement into her life. Since leaving the circus, she has acted in several commercials and movies, designed costumes, launched a career in photography, and even started a circus-themed restaurant with her husband without knowing a thing about the restaurant business.  She is clearly the kind of person who can turn napkins into wedding gowns, crackers and cheese into a gourmet meal, and dreams into reality.

And yet… she still insists that she’s not a risk taker.

“Other than my acting career, I don’t think I took very many risks.  I did a lot of little things, but I never invested too much money into anything.  I was always cautious and tried to be as safe as possible.”

As we sat together looking at her album filled with pictures of her with Sylvester Stallone when she worked on the newest Rocky movie, gorgeous images from her own photography career, and the breathtaking drawings she’s made (all without any formal training), I thought of my own life. No, I’ve never been in a movie or performed aerial acrobatics, but I have had some amazing experiences that I am quick to minimize. My writing, my travels, the eclectic characters who I count among my dearest friends… These have all been things that shaped me, made my life rich and colorful. I thought about how often we all fall into the trap of assuming our own lives are “ordinary,” when to an outsider they are anything but.

To me, Tisha represents the very best kind of risk taker: the kind that takes on every new challenge, but also does the hard work necessary to make them successful.  Her reluctance to describe herself as a risk taker makes me wonder if the proximity of our reality ever allows us to see ourselves as others do… to really appreciate the unique circus of our own lives.

As difficult as it can be to do, viewing your life from someone else’s perspective may help you realize that the way you define yourself is too limited. No matter how “ordinary” your life might appear to you, we all have stories to tell, challenges we’ve encountered, brave risks that we’ve taken…even if they didn’t happen 30 feet off the ground.

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