Elliana Grace Hentoff-Killian grew up in the circus.
She made her circus debut at age 2 and mastered her first circus act at 6, when she learned the Spanish web — an aerial act performed on a rope. Now, at 20, she is currently the youngest female human cannonball in the world.
"I never thought I was going to be doing the cannon. I was always the one sitting there saying, 'You've got to be insane to get shot out of a cannon,' " she tells NPR's Celeste Headlee. "And, of course, that's what I'm doing now."
She is on tour with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show Built to Amaze! The cannon she uses is about 24 feet long.
"I go all the way down to the bottom of the barrel, and then I shoot about 100 feet across all three rings and land in an air bag," she explains.
"I line the air bag up in relation to the cannon. So wherever it ends up shooting down, then the air bag is moved."
She says she travels about 65 mph, experiencing a G-force of seven, about the same as an astronaut re-entering the atmosphere.
On her first time out of the cannon, she was so scared and sore that she didn't want to do it again.
"My mom was there for my very first shot, and I think she was pretty terrified and extraordinarily worried, because I'm her only daughter and her oldest child," Hentoff-Killian says. "So it's one of those things. But, you know, they just want me to be happy and this makes me happy, so why not?"
On her second day, she had her first "good shot" and was hooked after that.
Hentoff-Killian grew up in St. Louis, Mo. Her mother, Jessica Hentoff, is a former circus performer and founder of the school Circus Harmony.
"I just went to circus school instead of real school and was home-schooled," she says. "I always knew that I would end up somewhere, and here I am on the greatest show on Earth, so I couldn't ask for more."
Hentoff-Killian deferred her entry to Columbia College after she was accepted to go to circus school in Quebec. She considered returning to college after continuing her circus education, but then she heard about the opportunity with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
"To do the circus you have to have a fit body, and younger is better. So I decided that I could go to college later, and I wanted to pursue my dreams first."
She does hope to return to college eventually and wants to study American Sign Language.
"I love performing, and to perform on Ringling and be shot out of a cannon, it's kind of a lot more fun than college might seem. So it's hard to imagine going back," she says.
Hentoff-Killian says she understands the huge risks involved in the act. Growing up in the circus, she has a great trust and appreciation for the training and care that goes into the performances.
"Somebody before you has probably done it, so it is relatively safe, as strange as that might sound," she says. "I feel better getting shot out of a cannon than, say, riding a roller coaster."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Elliana Grace didn't have to run away to the circus. It's where she was raised. Her mother was a circus performer and now runs a circus school in St. Louis. At six, Elliana Grace mastered the Spanish web; that's an aerial act performed with a rope. She's been performing ever since. And now at 20 she's become a human cannonball. Right now she's the youngest female human cannonball in the world. We're going to talk to her in just a minute.
But first, to you. If you were a circus performer, what did you learn while you were in the circus? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also go to our website, npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION to join this conversation. But joining us from our New York bureau is Elliana Grace Hentoff-Killian. She's touring right now with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show "Built to Amaze." Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
ELLIANA GRACE HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Hi. How are you?
HEADLEE: I'm doing fine. You know, the human cannonball, that's a pretty simple concept, but walk us through this. You put yourself into a cannon, which is basically going to shoot you out with compressed air, right?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well, maybe not compressed air, but I can't tell you what does do it. Yes, my cannon is about 24-foot long, and I go all the way down to the bottom of the barrel, and then I shoot about 100 feet across all three rings and land in an air bag.
HEADLEE: Who aims the cannon? Do you do that?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well, it's driven out onto the arena floor, and then I line the air bag up in relation to the cannon. So wherever it ends up sitting down, then the air bag is moved. 'Cause it's easier...
HEADLEE: But I mean this is like serious geometry here. You have to make sure that air bag is in the right place and then that your body is straight like an arrow, right? You must have abs of steel.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: I try. Yeah. I mean we decide what's going to, you know, how far we're going to shoot and how high and how fast before we even get into the ring. And then from there it's just a matter of making sure everything is correct and double checked.
HEADLEE: Yeah. I'd imagine. How fast are you going?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: I go about 65 miles an hour...
HEADLEE: Holy cow.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: ...and I experience a g-force of seven, which is the same as like an astronaut entering - re-entering the atmosphere.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: So that's kind of cool.
HEADLEE: It must upset your stomach - you have to be careful about what you eat.
HEADLEE: I mean, you must know a performer died doing this act just a couple of years ago. Do you get worried about your safety?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well - I mean there's definitely risks involved, but I try not to focus on that and I double check, and I've been trained really well and by amazing people. So, you know, you focus on the good things and not the scary ones.
HEADLEE: I have to tell you, Elliana, I was really surprised when I read some comments from your mother who thinks the circus is safer and better for kids than most sports. She wants to replace soccer with circus, right? What are your thoughts about this?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well, it's true in a certain sense. In circus everything is very controlled, and you don't do anything that you're not trained to do. And somebody before you has probably done it, so it is relatively safe, as strange as that might sound. I feel better getting shot out of a cannon than, say, riding a roller coaster.
HEADLEE: You actually deferred acceptance to college to go to circus school in Quebec. Why - what was behind that decision?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well, to do the circus you have to have a fit body and younger is better. So I decided that I could go to college later, and I wanted to pursue my dreams first.
HEADLEE: You're going to carpe diem, right?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Yes, exactly.
HEADLEE: But how different was your teenage life? I mean as much as you know about, say, the average teen, how different was it from some of your friends? I mean, did you hang out with them? Did you miss going out to school? Where you traveling?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: We didn't travel. So I grew up in one place, in St. Louis, and I just went to circus school instead of real school and was home-schooled. I had lots of friends who weren't in the circus. But I always knew that I would end up somewhere, and here I am on the greatest show on Earth, so I couldn't ask for more.
HEADLEE: No, absolutely. Do you plan on returning to college, though?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Yes, I think so. You know, you never...
HEADLEE: You think so.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well, it's going to be a process. I love performing, and to perform on Ringling and be shot out of a cannon is kind of a lot more fun than college might seem? So it's hard to imagine going back, but I plan on taking online courses, if, you know, nothing else, yeah.
HEADLEE: But I also read that when you first got shot out of a cannon, you said, I'm not doing that again.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Yeah. The first practice, I was convinced that I never wanted to do it again, ever. It was scary.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well, if you do it wrong, it hurts. If you do it right, it's fabulous and fun.
HEADLEE: OK, wait. Let's delve into this a little better. When you say you do it wrong, what does that mean?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well, the cannon is primarily about controlling your body. And to control your body, you have to build it muscles. But you're using muscles that you wouldn't normally use, so you have to become stronger. And to become stronger and to develop them, you have to do it more. So the first couple of times aren't that fun, and you're very sore the next day, which is just like anything else, you know, for the first time you do, you're going to be sore later, so it hurts a little bit.
HEADLEE: But you were so scared and so sore you didn't want to do it again.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Yes, but, you know, I had committed. And so I went the second day, and I had my first - what I would call my first good shot, and I was kind of hooked after that.
HEADLEE: Yeah, I guess so. Let's take a call here. This is Tracy in Sacramento, California. Our question was, if you were a circus performer, what did you learn in the circus? And the number is 800-989-8255. Tracy, you performed in the circus?
TRACY: I did. And I noticed I never - I didn't actually have to wait on line very long to speak. I guess there aren't a lot of circus performers that are listening to NPR right now.
HEADLEE: Yeah, I guess not.
HEADLEE: Maybe they're all out training. But what did you do in the circus, Tracy?
TRACY: I also did the Spanish web. I rode an elephant, a wonderful elephant named Carol, and I was an illusionist's assistant.
HEADLEE: So you did a lot of things. So what is it that you, maybe, learned in the circus that you can't learn somewhere else?
TRACY: Well, once you have - I think once you're a circus performer, it's in your blood. It takes a certain type of person to become a circus performer, and then it never leaves you. I subsequently became an alligator wrestler outside of the circus. I did that for a few years until I moved to California. And there ain't no gators out here, so I became a chef, which poses its own set of - it's its own circus act a lot of the time. So I learned that you really can do some things, just as your guest was saying, you do some things with your body that you never think that you can do. And it stays with you. I can still climb a rope better than most 42-year-old women...
TRACY: ...in my neighborhood. That's for sure.
HEADLEE: Wow. OK. That's Tracy in Sacramento, California. We also have a call here from Robert in Portland, Oregon. Robert, you were in the circus at some point?
ROBERT: Yeah. It was quite a while ago. It was 1977, and I worked in a traveling circus that went from Virginia to Maine and back, with the summer tour. It was a small- to medium-sized circus run by a guy named Dr. Charles Boas who had worked for Ringling Brothers for many years, and then decided to start his own circus. And so, it was called Circus Kirk, and...
HEADLEE: What did you do?
ROBERT: Well, I had been a gymnast in high school and college and got a call from a friend, saying, hey, we need an acrobat and we're short one acrobat. Can you do it? And I thought, well, that sounds crazy. Sure. So I was an acrobat in the circus, and we were - there were four of us. We were kind of the opening act. And then I also did - they needed somebody to do the Roman ladders act, which is a very traditional circus act. And that's - there were four of us doing that in these big, tall ladders that are held parallel, and anyway.
HEADLEE: But what wisdom do you take away, Robert? Is there - did you learn something that is kind of a life lesson when you were in the circus?
ROBERT: Well, you know, there was no option. The show is going on every day at 2 o'clock and at 7 o'clock in the evening. And then the next day, we're going to the next town, and so you're pretty much, you know, and there wasn't a lot of fat in the circus. I mean, you had to do your job, and if you couldn't do it, then, you know, there was really a problem and the whole show was let down. So I guess one thing I learned was, kind of no matter of what's going on with me, I still got to do that show. And if I'm injured, I still got to do the show. I still got to tumble. I still got to do flips. And I still gotta put that big top up and take it down every day. So it can be tough. I got...
HEADLEE: Yeah, that's not a bad life lesson, Robert. That's Robert calling from Portland, Oregon. Thanks so much. If you have some - a story for us if you were a circus performer, it's 800-989-8255. Our guest right now is Elliana Grace, who's the youngest female human cannonball in the world right now. Elliana, when I say that title to you, does it still surprise you that that's true?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Yeah. I never thought I was going to be doing the cannon. I was always the one sitting there, going, you have got to be insane to get shot out of a cannon. And, of course, that's what I'm doing now.
HEADLEE: What do you think about this idea of a life lesson? Robert says that you learn to be tough, and I imagine for the rest of your life, you won't have learned to complain very much.
HEADLEE: What do you think you take away from the circus that you wouldn't learn if you were just going to a regular high school and, I don't know, working at Subway part-time?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well, for me, it's always been that you always have to present yourself. And in the circus, you're there for everybody else's enjoyment. And, you know, I want to give them the best show that I can, whether it be the first show or the last one on a three-show Saturday. So for me, it's to give back and to, you know, show others that here's some enjoyment from me, I guess, is how I would put it.
HEADLEE: What's the age limit? I mean, you know, a tennis player at 40 years old is really old, right? Is there an age which you can - you pretty much need to stop get shot out of a cannon?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well, not that I've heard of. So I plan on doing it for as long as it's safe and that - as long as I like it, I guess. But no, I don't think there's an age limit. I mean, I don't think I'll be doing it at 80, but you never know - maybe 60.
HEADLEE: Don't worry. I have no intention of trying it, Eliana. But I wonder, what was the reaction of your parents? You'd never - you got called to this audition. You'd never done it before. When your mother and dad first saw you getting shot out of the cannon, that must've been a heart-stopping moment for them.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Yeah. My mom was there for my very first shot, and I think she was pretty terrified...
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: ...and extraordinarily worried because I'm her only daughter and her oldest child. So it's one of those things. But, you know, they just want me to be happy and this makes me happy, so why not?
HEADLEE: What's your best, I mean, if you were going to give a pitch to one of your friends.
HEADLEE: This is why you should go train for the circus, even if you're never going to perform in Ringling.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Best pitch? I would say that, you know, why not? Really, why not? It's an amazing experience to be performing in front of thousands and thousands of people and, you know, touch their lives in a way that not many other people can - and you get to be in a circus. Who doesn't want to be in the circus?
HEADLEE: That's pretty true. We have a call here from Alan(ph) in Deland, Florida. I hope I got that right, Alan. Alan, you were in the circus as a clown?
ALAN: Yes, I was. Actually I was with the red unit that Elliana is on for eight years. Prior to that, for two years on the blue unit. But I worked as a clown. Good heavens. Andre McClain, who is now your current ringmaster, he was living next door to me on the circus train. We had...
HEADLEE: It's a small circus world.
ALAN: ...we lived in the same clown car. Yeah.
HEADLEE: So what do you learn in the circus that you don't learn elsewhere, Alan?
ALAN: An incredible sense of community. I mean, the circus family is unlike any family you've ever known. The cultural diversity alone. I mean, all your friends are from all four corners of the globe. And that's just, you know, that's just the two-legged kind, you know. We also have zebra aunts and elephants to play with. And it's just the sense of camaraderie that you share with this family as you tour from city to city, week in, week out. It's an incredible family. And you have a chance to...
ALAN: ...to perform in front of thousands of people.
HEADLEE: That's exactly what Elliana was talking about. OK. Alan in Deland, Florida. Ooh, I think I cut you off, Alen. I'm sorry about that. But we have a call here from Erin(ph) in Santa Cruz, California. Erin, you were in the circus?
ERIN: Yes. I do aerial work in a circus, currently.
HEADLEE: Like a trapeze?
ERIN: Yes. Trapeze...
HEADLEE: So what did you learn from the circus?
ERIN: It's taught me an incredible amount of trust. Like Alan said, just working with people from all over the world and really trusting my life in other people's hands as I hang from the trapeze and other things, has just given me an incredible amount of trust in humanity and shown me that I can do way more than I think I can. Just the exponential power of humanity.
HEADLEE: Kind of the same concept as, like, a ropes course. Erin, in Santa Cruz, California, thank you very much. So you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let me go back to you, Elliana Grace, who's a human cannonball. I wonder, how do audiences react? And with the movies that we see in 3-D and all the incredible effects going on, are people still able to be amazed and surprised by a circus?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, especially this circus. It's called "Built to Amaze." We have an international cast. There's over 18 countries represented. And, you know, out of 18 countries, you're going to get some really amazing performers. And this day and age, with all of, you know, the multimedia and everyone's on Facebook and, you know, going to see movies, to come and see an actual real human being do something amazing, I think, is still awe-inspiring.
HEADLEE: Well, let's take one more call here. This is Jack in Athens, Ohio. Jack, you were in the circus?
JACK: Well, I was in the circus at the ripe age of 13. And...
HEADLEE: What did you do?
JACK: ...it wasn't really the circus. It was the fair. It was a carnival. And I was a boneless baby in a sideshow.
HEADLEE: What is a boneless baby? Does that mean you went all rubbery?
JACK: Well, right. They put me in a stock and put mirrors around me so it looked like I was on a table instead of in a box and then I sat there with a water bag and pumped up and down while my baby clothes moved. And on the third night of my career, a drunk came in and threw hot water - hot coffee in my face and I couldn't dodge.
HEADLEE: So not a great experience for you. Although that is the carnival which, I imagine, is really different. Thank you very much. That's Jack calling from Athens, Ohio. He's talking about carnival, Elliana. That's pretty different from circus, right?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Yeah. The circus is - it's different, you know. It's more about performance and about skills, and a carnival is more about attractions, I guess.
HEADLEE: All right. Well, Elliana Grace Hentoff-Killian, the youngest female human cannonball in the world. She is currently touring, as you heard, in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show "Built to Amaze." She joined us from our New York bureau. Where are you going to next, Elliana?
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: We go to Ohio. Youngstown, Ohio next.
HEADLEE: All right. So if you're in...
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: In Ohio.
HEADLEE: ...you can go see Elliana get shot out of a cannon and land on her airbag. Thank you so much for being here and good luck.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: Stay safe.
HENTOFF-KILLIAN: I will.
HEADLEE: Tomorrow it is TALK OF THE NATION - SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll take a look at the lush life in the deserts of the American Southwest. Join us back here on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.