September Smith can flip her aerial hoop upside-down, eight feet off the ground, and just hang from it. She can climb strips of fabric hanging from the ceiling, make herself a little pod in which to strip off clothing and peak out at the waiting crowd. She can put together a burlesque act to be performed from atop aluminum stilts at a car show.
And she's afraid of heights. Really afraid. "I get scared, even still," she says gravely. But September, who describes herself as a physical person, found herself at the Wise Fool circus camp a few years ago, enjoying the way learning basic circus skills felt. "I don't think I thought, 'I'm going to work on this fear.' I just liked it."
She likes it enough to train four, five, sometimes six days a week, lifting weights, practicing her act, doing tons of pull-ups. She trains to strengthen her hands, forearms, arms and back, the primary components involved in gripping, climbing and hanging from something high in the air.
At acrobat class five or six years ago, she spotted the hoop, but none of the instructors were into it. She noticed how it spun, making all sides of the performer available for viewing and knew it would be perfect for the burly-q. In the beginning, September had to travel far and wide to learn to work on the hoop, also called a lyra. Some of the tricks she learned for trapeze translated, but beyond that, September went to Oakland, Calif., Boulder, Colo., and San Francisco to meet experienced lyra performers.
Though there are lots of people using aerial hoops in the world, no one else is simultaneously executing striptease among all the acrobatics and tricks. Through it all, the one aspect of her burlesque act that required the least acclimation was the nudity. "It never really bothered me," she says.
She's had to learn about rigging, attaching her hoop to the ceilings of various venues while on tour. "There are technical aspects that professional riggers deal with, but I've had to figure it out because I rig myself most of the time." Securing her own gear eases her nerves. The first thing she does at every show, no matter who did the set up, is climb up and check that her prop is securely fastened to the ceiling. On tour with the Sex Workers Art Show, she found herself rigging off the sketchiest things, sometimes low, sometimes high, sometimes not rated properly. "I did not tell my partner until afterward."
Similarly, September's partner is less anxious about his loved one getting naked in public and more concerned about safety issues.
"He's like, 'You did what? Where? You rigged off of what?'"
It all started with a fan dance back in Nan Morningstar's Lonely Hearts burlesque troupe. But there was infighting, September says. People were getting catty. And when Albuquerque's first burlesque revivalist troupe fractured into the scene we have today, no one asked September to be part of their spin-off. "It was perfect for me, though, because it pushed me to push myself," she says. Though she doesn't have a built-in support system that comes with being part of a troupe, she says it doesn't get lonely until she hits the road. "If I go out of town to a show and I don't know any of the other performers, it's definitely scarier."
But as her circus performances become more frequent and her burlesque appearances less, September says her tease days may be winding down. "I don't know how much longer I'll do burlesque," she says, so catch this one-of-a-kind act while you can.