Suspended in the air from the ceiling is what looks like a big, steel hula-hoop with a reassuring crash pad under it. I have just learnt the hoop is called aerial Lyra and it is my first lesson.
“Place your right hand here, place your left hand there, hook your knee, now the other one and pull yourself up,” my teacher Mona Almazidi instructs. I suspend my anxiety, follow her instructions and here I am sitting on the hoop as though it is a swing, feet off the ground. Mona then guides me into different shapes with delightful names like Man on the Moon and Peter Pan. In some shapes I am balancing, in others I am hanging. I am surprised every time she guides me into a new shape not really believing I could do any of this. The adrenalin pumps and I feel euphoric.
I especially never believed I would be trying any of this in a small gym in a residential suburb in Kuwait. Circus classes have arrived in Kuwait and being taught by homegrown Kuwaiti circus artists across the city.
Mona is passionate about sharing her skills. “I am happy to teach anyone who is willing to learn,” she says. “I have a variety of people in my classes … when they try this they stop doubting themselves. Aerial skills give you power and self-confidence. It is different from doing a push up. People never imagine themselves hanging. When they are there they begin to love their bodies because it is what took them up there” Mona discovered aerial while living in Baltimore when a pole dancing class she wanted to take was booked out.
“I saw the Lyras hanging there and they looked beautiful. I was excited, scared, did not know what to expect. I took the class and the moment I finished and left the gym I told myself this is what I am going to do,” she says. “I could not invert, I could not lift myself, I could not do a single pull up. But I knew I was going to do this, ” she says. “It is never too late. Anyone can start. but you need to have the will, and you have to be consistent to build strength.”
What followed for her was months of grueling training to physically prepare her to meet the rigorous requirements of an aerial teacher-training program. “I knew I wanted to take this back to Kuwait,” she says.
She is not alone. The community of circus artists in Kuwait is small but growing.
Tamara Qabazard, a vet at Kuwait zoo is also a silks aerialist who performs regularly at events in Kuwait and together with Mona will be running Kuwait’s first-ever aerial silks and Lyra workshop in February.
It was after watching an inspiring aerial performance while working in New York that motivated Tamara to find a class to learn aerial silks – a performance style art in which artists perform acrobatics while hanging from a special, suspended fabric.“Circus is about looking at what your body can do and appreciating it for that. It also teaches you a lot of patience and you have to let go of a lot of control. It puts you in tune with your body, “she says. “In Kuwait we have a love hate relationship with our bodies. We have a food culture, we have a gym culture but the balance in between is really difficult”
As a child, like many children, Tamara dreamed of running away to join the circus. “I wanted to be a vet and a performer for the circus. And then a book came out called Water for Elephants and it is about a guy who runs away as a vet to join the circus,” she says. “Circus felt like a faraway dream that I was never going to do or try.”
“Circus brings back a feeling of nostalgia, and amazement. I think it is connected to this childhood feeling of going to the circus and seeing people flying in the air. We are so grounded as people, it gives a different element.”
She believe there are no prerequisites for trying aerial: “You just need to get up there with a clear head and be open to trying things, and be okay with not being able to do things (the) first few times. You will gain your upper body strength and your flexibility by working on it,”
Both Mona and Tamara regularly travel to circus schools abroad to continue developing their skills and update their teaching credentials. But the ultimate aim is to have a circus school in Kuwait.
“You don’t have to run away to join the circus, you can bring the circus here,” says Dalal Almohanna, a hoop dancer and teacher who has been running classes and successful flow jams in the last year around Kuwait.
Hula hoopers, jugglers, fire dancers and other forms of object manipulation while dancing are called Flow Arts. Dalal believes it is a form of moving meditation. She picked up the hoop to deal with the grief of losing her mother to cancer and she has not put it down. Entirely self-taught through dedicated practice, she then trained to teach hooping to others. “There is a crazy empowerment that the hoop gave me“ Dalal says. “It is like I re-owned my body and re-owned myself when I started hooping. It is like a self love machine and with that you gain control over yourself and that reflects in confidence outside of the home.”
When she ran her first flow jam she did not know how it would go in Kuwait – turning up with her hoops and a DJ in tow, and inviting everyone to pick up a hoop and flow to the music.
“It worked. People picked up hoops, men picked up hoops, fathers and sons picked up hoops. I think Kuwait is appreciating it and I am so proud of Kuwait,” she says. ”Somehow the hula hoop erases the stigma of dance. “
There are a growing number of flow artists in Kuwait and when there is a flow jam they come out to play. “We call each other “flomies” – because we are homies who flow together,” she laughs. “I think right now a lot of things are turning local. So maybe that is why it is time to have a local circus. And the talents are showing up from everywhere.”
“I think the idea of circus has changed over the years, it has now become a lot more artistic and more ethical. The new circuses don’t need animals. It is not a freak show anymore but a talent show,” she says. “Now that the world is changing in ways where people are following their passions more, it is allowing everyone to find their inner child. Circus is about that.”
To take part in Tamara and Mona’s February workshops Aerial Silks Beginner 101 (Friday 2nd February 10 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.) or Lyra Silks (Friday 2nd February 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.) at Flare Shuwaikh contact Whatsapp 9094 7411 (Females only).
To follow the artists interviewed here on Instagram:
Mona Almazidi and Tamara Qabazard’s photos by Sara Alostad. Dalal Almohanna’s photos taken by Abdullah Al Saleh.