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Circus: A Day in the Life

Ellen Waylonis and acrobatic partner Tim Ellis.

The circus: Spangled costumes, cotton candy, clowns, and amazing feats of human endurance and skill - it all feels so charmingly retro. But for those living in the Boston area, it doesn’t have to be. Ever wonder if you could still run away and join the circus? You can – and WGBH spent the day with Ellen Waylonis, a performer, teacher and business owner who did just that.


It’s like being an actor or dancer - you go to school for it. Or not. But mostly people do.

10:30 am - 12:30 pm: Training
While most people might be reaching for their second cup of coffee and checking email, Waylonis starts her day with two hours of training at Esh Circus Arts, the training school she co-owns in Somerville. After about a half hour of stretching and tumbling to warm up, she and her acrobatics partner Tim Ellis get to work on perfecting their act. They don’t have a show coming up, so rather than run through the performance, they spend time trying out new material, which turns out to be particularly important right now: the third member of their team, Waylonis’s husband Roger, was recently sidelined with an injury, and while he’s recovering they’ve had to adapt the act. Waylonis and Ellis are nearly the same size, so some of the more explosive parts of the act have been moved to the back burner. Instead, they’re working on elements where Waylonis acts as the base, which tend to surprise crowds who expect a more traditional setup.

[ Explore the early days of the greatest show on earth with American Experience's The Circus: Parts 1 and 2,available in our TV section]

“It’s about vocabulary choice – movement vocabulary," said Waylonis. "There are certain skills that are going to be easier or look better with folks who are closer to the same size, and certain skills where the difference in size allows it to work.”

Three things are immediately clear:

This is an art that takes an incredible amount of strength and skill. The tiniest movement can send your partner off-balance, and sustaining these positions for any length of time is exhausting – as Waylonis and Ellis bounce from move to move, there’s plenty of breathers and dashes for water.

Communication is essential. No matter how strong each performer is individually, they need to be able to adapt to working together – throughout their practice, Waylonis and Ellis keep up a steady commentary as they figure out the minute adjustments that will be required to safely complete each movement.

Safety is always top of mind.

“Because you have to be very organized in your body to do what we’re doing safely, part of it is, do you know where your body is in space? Can you make decisions on purpose? And until the answer to that is yes there are certain skills they can’t work on,” said Waylonis.

While she rehearses, other staff and performers work on their own skills, and it’s hard to stay focused on one act. Yards of colorful fabric, hoops, trapezes, and ropes hang from the ceiling. The back walls are lined with tight wires and juggling equipment. And the people are just as interesting as the space – between rehearsing some truly amazing skills, they also showed off some truly amazing lip-syncing to 90s pop.

Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Ellen Waylonis starts her morning with practice.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis warming up.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis works with her acrobatics partner Tim Ellis.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis warms up with a hand stand.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
The workout facility.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis and Ellis do some stretching.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis and Ellis do some stretching.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis loosens up to start the day.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis and Ellis in their morning routine.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis and Ellis in their morning stretch.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Ellis lifts Waylonis during practice.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis does her part while Ellis juggles.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis lifts Ellis during their morning workout.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Balance is essential for Waylonis and Ellis.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
More acts of balance.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice.
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis and Ellis train every morning for two hours in Somerville.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen Waylonis and acrobatics partner, Tim, start their morning with practice
Circus: A Day In The Life
Waylonis co-owns Esh Circus Arts in Somerville.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
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There aren’t tricks – there’s no special gimmick to anything… whenever you see something that looks basically impossible, there’s no gimmick. We’re just doing the thing you’re seeing us do. It’s all real.

Circus has a reputation for being a closed community - but Waylonis tells us that “it used to be that you had to be born into it, or marry into it, but now you can actually go to school for it. It’s since the mid-80s that you could go to school for circus [in the US],” which is exactly what she did.

“I started circus pretty late, for circus people," she said. "I came to it in my mid-20s, [and] folks often start as children or teens. It started as a hobby… I was in marketing, and then the economy crashed. And I had the chance to take a voluntary lay-off from my job, which I did because I hated it. It was a really cushy job with great benefits – but my soul was dying.”

As they wrap up their practice with another 30 minutes of stretching, Waylonis changes into street clothes, and we hit the road.

Circus: A Day in the Life
Ellen stops for a quick coffee.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin

12:35 pm: Caffeine!
She heads down the street for chai to help her refuel for her upcoming business meeting. And speaking of fuel, taking care of her body is just as important as you might think.

“I have to eat pretty well… sleep is pretty crucial…. I have to have accountability buddies for training," Waylonis said. "The easiest thing to let slide is my own training. I still take lessons, I have teachers - having a teacher is really important for teachers. I work with a personal trainer twice a week, and I have a coach on straps [as it’s] not my primary discipline – that’s less about performing, it’s more cross training, but it’s still someone who’s observing my movement and giving me feedback on it and helping me work on skills. I don’t have a rope coach around here… [but] I will travel to train. Train-cation is a thing in circus!”

Circus: A Day in the Life
Waylonis talks with husband Roger May during a meeting for the Commonwealth Circus Center.
Photo By Andrea Wolanin

1 pm - 3 pm: Commonwealth Circus Center Business Meeting
In addition to co-owning at Esh and performing, Waylonis also trains at Commonwealth Circus Center in Boston. “I have three jobs, really: I’m a circus performer, I’m a circus arts teacher, and I’m also a small business owner – and those are three really different roles. So, being a business owner, I do the same things everybody else does – I deal with insurance, and payroll, and compliance, and utility bills, and all the really boring stuff. If we’re out of paper towels, that’s sort of my job.”

Cirucs: A Day in the Life
An interloper on Ellen's meeting - her dog!
Photo by Andrea Wolanin

Boston is a great town for circus – we have an organization called the Boston Circus Guild. We’re one of the most stable cities because we have a culture of not undercutting each other.

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Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin

4:30 pm - 5:30 pm: Private Lessons
After her lunch meeting, she returns to Esh for a private lesson. Today she’s teaching two students aerial rope. The class is a mix of perfecting existing skills, learning new elements, and putting them together into combinations. Some of the combinations come directly from Waylonis, but there’s also an emphasis on students figuring out how to string different parts together. The class wraps up with a discussion of sequences to try for next time, and she grabs a quick snack while they busy themselves resetting the rigging for the next shift of classes.

Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Ellen has a private training class with two intermediate students.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
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“You need to embrace the fact that failure is part of learning. At a certain point for everybody, you’re going to hit a point where you can’t do something your first, second, third or twelfth or seventeenth time trying. And accepting and embracing the fact that part of success is trying a lot, even if the thing doesn’t look how you want it to look? Celebrating the process is a unique opportunity that circus gives you.”

Ellen explains – and shows! – her students their next move.
Ellen explains – and shows! – her students their next move.
Photo by Andrea Wolanin

5:50 pm - 7:05 pm: Advanced Rope Class
This class showcases the highest-level student work in this discipline, and does not disappoint. The small group of students shows off an impressive array of skills and stamina – something that Waylonis says is not unique to this class. “I guarantee you can do something you didn’t think you can do. It’s not about being better than anyone else, it’s about celebrating what everyone brings to the table.”


There’s no wrong body for circus. Do you have a body? Cool, you can do circus.
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Photo By Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Photo By Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Photo By Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Ellen works with her class of advanced students.
Photo By Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Ellen works with her class of advanced rope students
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
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During class, it’s clear that each performer has distinctive strengths and areas for growth. Some of these have to do with how the skills look, in addition to their technical execution.

“It’s a performance discipline," Waylonis said. "What I like to tell my students is I don’t need them to be beautiful - that’s [just one] way to look. I need them to be intentional. So, whatever you’re doing with your body – is that an on purpose decision, or a because you weren’t thinking about it decision?”


It’s about aesthetics, but it’s also about function.

Circus: Day in the Life
Ellen works with students in her partner acrobatics class
Photo by Andrea Wolanin

7:10 pm - 8:25 pm: Partner Acrobatics Class
For the last class of the day, Waylonis returns to partner acrobatics. After an intense warm up – but one that still brings laughter to the students as they bunny-hop and tumble across the mats – they work on weight-shifting while balancing. It’s a skill that appears to be just as difficult and strenuous for the flyers as the bases, and Ellen and husband Roger help spot and adjust the students’ body positions.

Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Ellen and husband Roger work with their partner acrobatics class
Photo by Andrea Wolanin
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If you can get through a gentle yoga class you can do circus. The cool thing is that there are so many different disciplines that there are a lot of ways in. You start at the beginning... Our approach is progressions: what’s the skill, and how do you level that up?

9 pm on: Data Entry
Waylonis wraps up classes at a time most folks are eating dinner, but her work isn’t over – she still has data entry to do in support of her business. But late nights probably don’t matter as much when you’ve officially run away with the circus.


Even though circus is no longer restricted to families there is that sense of group feeling… taking care of your own.

Circus: Day in the Life
Photo by Andrea Wolanin

[ Explore the early days of the greatest show on earth with American Experience's The Circus: Parts 1 and 2,available in our TV section]

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