Welcome to the Big Top

Nerves boiling, Olivia Van Iderstine ’10 climbed the ladder to a platform high above the ground. Below her was a net to catch her fall. When she jumped off the platform, she experienced something new; she was flying. Although it was her fourth summer at French Woods, a performing arts camp, Olivia experienced something she had never felt before.

“The adrenaline rush was huge and when I let go and fell on the net,” Olivia said. “I don’t remember a time I smiled so big.”

Olivia said the feeling is like being on a rollercoaster or a giant swing, all while hanging on by her hands.

Olivia was one of a few current and former Harvard-Westlake students who explore these unique stunts at circus camps. Olivia, her sister Miranda Van Iderstine ’13 and Alisa Houghton ’08 have all experienced the adrenaline rush while performing circus stunts at their respective summer camps.

Olivia Van Iderstine ’10

The flying trapeze, which Olivia recently mastered, is one of the many acts which she has learned over the past four years at French Woods. She has walked on a tight wire, balanced on a globe and done the rola-bola (balancing on a plank which is on some type of cylinder,) just to name a few.

As much as one would assume that circus camp is all fun and games, Olivia said that is not the case. French Woods requires training every day. Although people do work on their acts, they also participate in strength and conditioning workouts. And whenever someone is late to a session, he or she has to do a push-up for each minute he or she was late, Olivia said.

Learning new tricks proves to be pretty difficult, Olivia explained. To perfect a trick or stunt, she has to be strong enough to do it, which is where the training proves to be important.

But Olivia said that all of the hard work is worth it. At the end of the three to four week session, the camp puts on a full circus show with a theme, music, makeup and costumes.

Olivia’s favorite moment last summer was when she finally performed an act that requires a lot more thought and effort, the fly trap.

“Fly trap is not about acting, but reacting to the calls that come to you from below,” she said. “Getting your timing right, swinging your legs, then letting go at the precise moment are a lot to think about.”

More than learning how to perform incredibly elaborate stunts and acts, Olivia loves the camp’s camaraderie. Through the bonds they have formed over the years, she and her friends have almost become a second family, she said.

“The friends I’ve made from all around the country and the world are definitely the number one reason why I go back,” she said.

Miranda Van Iderstine ’13

It was Miranda’s first time at French Woods this summer, but like her older sister, Miranda loved camp from the moment she learned the “suicide dismount roll.”

“I was really scared because I had to free fall forward off of a trapeze,” Miranda said. “I loved camp after that moment.”

Miranda learned a variety of stunts this summer, concluding her session with a Steve Irwin Jungle themed performance in which she did a series of 11 moves on the single trapeze. She dedicated most of her time to trapeze training, especially the most important elements of this stunt: flexibility, trust and strength.

“Lifting all of your weight with just an arm and a leg wrapped around the rope takes a lot of endurance, but the training prepared me for it,” Miranda said.

Miranda’s favorite accomplishment was the monkey lift. This is a painful move, Miranda said, because she must hang, holding all of her weight on one leg and then roll up the bar by swinging backwards. However, the pain and scars were all worth it, she said.

Alisa Houghton ’08

Like the Van Iderstine sisters, Alisa Houghton ’08 participated in circus events during her summers, but at a different camp: Long Lake Camp for the arts. For six years, starting when she was 10 years old, Houghton dabbled in different acts and stunts, including her favorite, the spanish web and the static trapeze.

The Spanish web, which is a cloth covered rope with a loop attached near the top where the performer inserts their foot or wrist and spins, took Hougton a lot of time to get used to because of the safety precautions. She had to learn how to wrap the spanish web around her foot so she could climb it quickly and safely.

Like Olivia, Houghton learned how to perform the flying trapeze act. However, it was difficult to learn because there are a number of serious injuries that one can endure from this act, like the possibility of a breaking one’s neck.

“The feeling I got from nailing a stunt or even just surviving a difficult one was comparable to any feeling of having succeeded—elation, pride and renewed ambition,” Houghton said.