When Nikki Kenward was 30, she thought it was time to stop dancing. As a single parent, performance schedules were unforgiving. And, besides, that was the age at which dancers tended to retire. Now, at 67, she has taken up circus.
The circus performer Katy Kartwheel lived nearby in Buckinghamshire. “I saw on Facebook that she was offering classes. I thought: ‘Classes in aerial in Marlow! That looks fun.’ So I emailed her and said: ‘Would you take a woman in her 60s?’ She said: ‘Great! Come along!’”
Kartwheel’s trapezes hung at three heights. “The first time I tried to get on, she had to push my bum up,” Kenward says. The trapeze “is not forgiving to the flesh. You hug the bar in the backs of your knees, then let go with your hands. It looks beautiful, but the equipment is brutal. After my first lesson, I looked as if a car had driven into the back of my legs,” she laughs.
She was 65 when she performed her first show with Kartwheel, on the aerial net at the circus school in Marlow, for 150 spectators. She dismounted by pulling the net back through itself with her toes, “a beautiful, slow backward somersault … and landed gracefully, on one leg”. She must have felt utterly untethered moving through the air like that.
“Anything goes, and anything is possible,” she says.
Although Kenward feels she has “always” loved circus, her earliest memories date not to childhood but to her 30s, when she took her two children. She recalls an act at Cirque du Soleil: five aerialists hidden in the roof, wound up in blue silks. “We didn’t see them climb up. And they just fell, all of them – fff … ffff … fff – ” she says, imitating the sound of the silks unrolling. “And stopped.” Held for a moment in perfect balance, midair, nothing beneath them, yet safe in silk, turning risk into grace. “It took my breath away.”
Instead of the circus, Kenwood danced as a child. “I was always dancing – creating little performances and subjecting my parents to them.” She was the only child at home, and the way she recounts these performances makes her sound like a sideshow in her own world.
“My childhood was very troubled,” she says. “There was a lot of anger. There was some violence … Dance was the thing that moved me.
“I’ve felt for a lot of my adult life that I had a lot of fun and playfulness to catch up on. I was always led to feel that I wasn’t OK and to be ashamed. But if I walk into the circus world with crazy ideas and say my age and ‘Can I have a go at that?’, the answer is always ‘Yes’.”
Kenward says she is “no thrill-seeker” but she is clearly a lifelong adventurer and rethinker. She took her first degree, against her mother’s wishes, in contemporary dance, and after retiring from her various dance jobs – teaching in the community, performing, giving talks on dance history – in her 40s she retrained as a cranial osteopath. Now, at 67, she is midway through a master’s degree in directing circus with Bristol Circomedia, intent on creating diverse and inclusive performances.
“As women, going into our 50s, 60s, 70s, we can become quite invisible. And I certainly don’t intend to become invisible,” she says.
“Energy is abundant. And willingness to be adventurous and be daring is off-the-scale huge because you realise your life isn’t going on for ever, so you need to get on with it and have fun.”
Next she hopes to work on rope. “When you see people wrapping it around them, tumbling, climbing, hanging, I’d love to have a go with that. I want to see if I can have another 20-year career – performing in, and directing, circus.”