For some, the idea of hanging suspended above the ground is pure nightmare. For others, it’s a dream come true—the ultimate, exhilarating defiance of our earthbound nature, and an act of pure freedom. Ninette Paloma falls into the latter category. The petite, 36-year-old Chicago transplant has lived in Santa Barbara for the past nine years, ever since weather in the windy city drove her west. Trained in gymnastics from a young age and schooled by “circus goddess” Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi at The Actors Gymnasium in Chicago, Paloma went on to train with Cirque du Soleil aerialists Elsie and Serenity Smith and Karen Steben. Here in Santa Barbara, she began as aerial director of the Lobero Theatre Circus Camp, then moved on to teach aerial dance classes in a corner of her downtown loft.
Today, she’s is the proud owner of La Petite Chouette, Santa Barbara’s first and only dedicated aerial dance studio. Just last month, Paloma secured space in an airy Quonset hut on lower Milpas Street. She’s built a cadre of more than 50 regular students and now offers classes on nine different aerial apparatus.
The studio’s name comes from Paloma’s childhood nickname. It means “Little Owl” in French. “I wanted to capture the spirit, strength, and grace of an owl—the quiet beauty in the air,” Paloma explained last week, sitting with me outside the studio as students from her advanced class gathered to wait for rides home. In their street clothes, Zola Phillips, Russ Glick, and Jesse Burnell looked like ordinary teenagers: backpacks slung over shoulders, wisps of hair falling in their eyes. Yet minutes ago, they had seemed more like angels, suspended from the studio’s ceiling in tights and leotards, their limbs wrapped in colorful fabric strands that dangled to the ground below.
When I’d entered the studio that afternoon, I’d found nine students sitting with their backs against the wall as they watched Paloma, who spoke calmly and clearly, hanging upside down in the middle of the room. “In order to keep our descent free, what do we have to do?” she asked them. “Lift our hips up,” they replied in chorus.
Those seven boys and two girls are among Paloma’s most advanced students and are also members of her youth company. They range in age from 10 to 17, and some have been with her since she started teaching in 2006. “They work really, really hard,” Paloma said of the group. “They are incredibly fearless and agile in the air.” Their greatest challenge, she says, is integrating their technical skills with performance—that elusive quality that distinguishes tricks in the air from true art.
After talking the class through a basic aerial routine, Paloma tacked on a challenge. “I want you to perform this routine with anger,” she told them. Moving over to the stereo, she put on a thrashing track by Fugazi, and the first two students stepped up to demonstrate. “Let your inhibitions go and feel it,” Paloma cried as they took the silks in their hands and, pulling, rose off the ground. They rolled upward, using their legs to wrap the fabric in complex patterns, then took tumbling descents back down. But they didn’t look very angry. “That was the most subdued, quiet anger I have ever seen,” she told them. “I’m going to have you try it again.” After his turn, Malcolm McCarthy spoke up. “The performance of anger requires quick movements,” he reflected, sitting up straight in purple and green tights, like a superhero in training. “It’s extremely difficult to combine that urgency with the control you need for aerial work.”
Yet by the end of the exercise, every student was finding more expression. Glick shook the fabrics violently and balled them in his hands; Phillips stabbed the air with her toes. Not every student at La Petite Chouette gets pushed this hard; Paloma teaches classes for complete beginners, too. But her standards for her more experienced students are high. For her, that’s part of respecting them, and respecting the circus tradition. Alongside technical skills and performance, Paloma teaches circus history, explaining the origins of each apparatus and telling stories about the performers who developed their use. “They love learning about the history,” she said of her students. “It means more to them as a result.”
It’s also her way of giving back to an art form that gave her a way of life. “I started aerial dance at a time when I didn’t know what I was doing,” she explained. “The circus community took really good care of me.” Now, she feels, she’s drawing together her own circus family. Many of her students are siblings or have a parent or child who also trains at La Petite Chouette.
When I asked Paloma what satisfies her most about her work, she talked about that sense of family and intergenerational bonds. She also mentioned landmarks like being there when a student does his first aerial drop—when he learns to fly. “When I’ve been here 12 hours and I’m bruised and exhausted,” she said, “those moments reinforce why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Ninette Paloma’s advanced youth and adult companies will perform for the public in early December. To learn more about La Petite Chouette, call 284-8785 or visit lapetitechouette.com.