High hopes: Young aerialist is an ‘emerging pro’ in cirque

Jillian Ryan competes on the lyra at the De Leon Cirque Fest.
(Steven Gale)

Flying through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young Jillian Ryan recently won an aerial cirque competition with her performance on lyra, also known as the aerial hoop. Jillian, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy, competed against aerialists from across the country in the “emerging pro” level at De Leon Cirque Fest, held Feb. 19-20 at De Leon Dynamics in Carmel Mountain.

Jillian is looking to one day, maybe soon, becoming a professional performer, literally running off to join the circus.

While many competitors come to the sport from dance or gymnastics backgrounds, Jillian came from neither. She is a former softball and soccer player, and cross country athlete. In cross country, she also preferred flying high—as a pole vaulter.

“I started cirque in seventh grade, we found it on a Groupon and I thought it would be fun to try,” Jillian said. “I ended up joining the competition team.”

She now trains six days a week in the gym at De Leon Dynamics, where they offer a variety of aerial cirque, urban ninja, gymnastics and functional fitness-type classes, and field an aerial competition team of select athletes.

Aerial cirque includes several apparatuses with the performer suspended in the air on silks, rope, straps and lyra. Jillian started on silks and three years ago began specializing in lyra, also competing in straps.

“When you first start, you start really low and when you get comfortable, you work your way up, it’s not so scary,” said Jillian, who has no fear of heights.

In lyra, the hoop is lifted up to 20 feet off the ground and for a four-minute routine she acrobatically twirls, flips and spins; and demonstrates strength and body control with holds and splits.

In practice, she is working on perfecting a trick where she lets go of the hoop completely: “I’ve caught it a bunch of times…it’s been getting better.”

While she has taken first place in competitions several times, this was her first win at the emerging pro level, where the competitors take it more seriously, eying a future performing for troupes like Cirque du Soleil.

Jillian’s next competition is VivaFest in Las Vegas where if she performs well, she could be handed a professional contract on the spot, her ultimate goal: “The real prize is the contract.”

“The competition was tough (at De Leon Cirque Fest) and I know it will get even harder,” said Jillian. “I have high hopes.”