When work is a workout

While some performers have previous careers that lend themselves to joining this circus, others go to school for it.

"It was four years of Cirque university," straps performer Andreanne Nadeau told me of attending L'Ecole Nationale de Cirque de Montreal to obtain a diploma in circus studies. "It was five to seven hours of training every day. There is also theory, physiology, psychology, career management and a second language."

Nadeau has impressive musculature, and she needs it. "I am a Valkyrie in the show," she said. "It's a highflying act using aerial straps. It's mostly upper-body strength."

Nadeau started dancing at age 4, but she also played basketball and football and took part in track and field. She didn't go to circus school until later in life. "I didn't join until I was 25."

Staying healthy

And at 31, Nadeau isn't worried about the ticking clock for a career that might seem more conducive to youth. "We have performers who are over 50 in Cirque du Soleil," she said.

All the performers I spoke with are concerned about career longevity, and so is Cirque du Soleil, which is why two performance medicine therapists travel with the "Amaluna" troupe, both of whom have master's degrees in sports medicine.

"We research the various performers' disciplines and the body mechanics that are necessary," Chad Fraser said. Because joint injuries are common, the therapists focus on strengthening the small internal muscles around these joints. "We also train the muscles in different joint spaces so that if unexpected movement happens, we prevent injury from taking place."

As it turns out, most of the injuries are from overuse. "It comes from doing the same thing every day," Fraser said. "But the performers are pretty good about taking care of themselves."

"Most of my injuries came from my gymnastics years," Sinclair said. "Here the goal is to make sure you last. It's not just a hobby or a sport, it's your career. You need to be smart."

On top of the physical therapy guiding the performers movements, there are also coaches traveling with the show.

"We have a coach for our act specifically, and there is another coach who oversees all the acts," Sinclair said. "We have a lot of guidance from the coaching staff and artistic director to help us continuously refine the show and make it better."

I can verify this. Backstage, I saw two large whiteboards filled with written critiques of previous performances. This is a show that's been live for a year, and still they're trying to make it better.

And even though performers live a life of near constant physical exertion, motivation to go on the stage is always high.

"Like any job, you look forward to vacation," McClendon said. "But because it's performing and something I love doing, there is a motivation that will never go away, even when you're tired."

Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of sixpackabs.com.