Circus Performer Combines Passions for Physics and Acrobatics
By Karen Shih ’09
Photo by Rob Riingen
Peek inside a big top these days, and you’re unlikely to find the tigers, bears and elephants that wowed crowds for nearly two centuries. The amazing acrobatics and feats of strength still deliver thrills, but they’re all from human circus performers like Julia Ruth ’14.
She can double-Dutch on 3-foot-tall stilts. She can stand on a man’s shoulders while holding up another man, upside down, by his hands. And in her signature act, she extends her arms and legs like da Vinci’s spread-eagled Vitruvian Man inside a hoop called a Cyr wheel and spins at dizzying speeds.
Add some thumping techno music, a candy cane-striped costume and flashing lights, and it’s easy to see why Ruth is in demand in the circus industry.
“It’s ever-changing and I love that about it,” says Ruth, who as a freelancer chooses her gigs, spending a month or two at a time with troupes from Sydney to Montreal to Las Vegas.
She also can tout a unique juggling act: her circus work and science education. Ruth enrolled at UMD as a physics major with ambitions of becoming a research scientist, but those plans took an unexpected turn when she saw a female student in Gymkana, the university’s gymnastics and acrobatic troupe, masterfully work the rings—usually a men’s apparatus—at one of its shows.
“I wanted the skill so badly!” says Ruth, a multisport athlete who had never tried gymnastics. “Women are extremely strong, mentally and physically, and I wanted to prove that.”
It took her six months to “muscle up,” pulling up from hanging to a straight-arm position hovering above the rings. She practiced so much she even started doing it in her sleep. Ruth went on to perform with Gymkana all four years at Maryland, and when she relocated to San Diego after graduation to pursue a Ph.D., she made sure there was a circus school nearby.
“I wanted to keep riding both waves,” she says. But after a year, she realized she needed to make a choice. She left with a master’s degree and started teaching science at a private school to make ends meet while she built up her act, taking to the stage during every school break and on evenings and weekends. Two years later, she took another leap: leaving behind the security of a full-time paycheck to go on tour with various circus troupes.
It was rough at first, because she still had to pay for training facilities and coaches. But she found her physics background gave her an edge.
“I’d film myself training a new skill, and if it wasn’t working for me, I’d figure out why. Where is my center of mass? What’s the torque right now? Where is the angular momentum taking me? I was able to troubleshoot a lot of my own problems without having a coach there,” she says.
She hopes to have a long circus career, but to keep her options open, she continues to teach science online, and last year gave a talk to the American Physical Society. At its annual conference in March, Ruth will perform an act that bridges circus skills and physics concepts, which she hopes to incorporate into the one-woman show she’s developing on dimensions and string theory.
“I want to find really unique ways of demonstrating the principles of physics in a way that a pedestrian on the street could come in and appreciate,” Ruth says.
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