Hentoff-Killian is built like a gymnast: petite and muscular, with a sweet face and twinkling brown eyes. She looks like she ought to be sitting in a sociology lecture taking copious notes. But she was practically born in the circus ring.

"I was in Circus Flora when I was two weeks old," she recounts. "My mom had a two-week maternity leave, and then she went back to work, and I was the baby. I got passed around the ring."

Jessica Hentoff's work at the time was to do an aerial act at Circus Flora and to teach juggling and trapeze and unicycle to kids at Circus Harmony, a "social circus" that combines the circus arts with community outreach. (The idea is that if you bring people from different backgrounds together to perform in a circus, which requires trust and teamwork, it will lead to understanding and harmony — hence the circus' name.)

Courtesy Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
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Cover illustration by Tim Lane

"Elliana came up from birth," Hentoff says. "She did her first trick when she was six months old. It was a baby balance. When you push a baby's legs, she can stand up. Elliana stood in the hands of a clown."

By nine months Hentoff-Killian was an honorary member of the St. Louis Arches, Circus Harmony's elite performing troupe. In short order she began taking classes herself. The first trick she remembers performing was on the Spanish web, an aerial rope apparatus. She dangled by her hand from a loop in the rope then flipped her legs over her head and started spinning as fast as she could. She was six years old.

By then her mother had given up the trapeze — she says it took five years for the calluses to disappear from her hands — but not the circus. Growing up, Hentoff-Killian and her two younger brothers (Keaton, now eighteen and a high-wire walker; and Kellin, sixteen, a juggler) spent more time under Circus Harmony's glass big top in the City Museum than they did at home in St. Louis, near Maplewood, or, later, in Florissant. All three were homeschooled. None of them minded. Circus was all they ever wanted to do.

At one point their father, Michael Killian, suggested the boys go out for ice hockey. Hentoff put the kibosh on that immediately. "In youth hockey," she explains, "all the jerseys have stop signs on the back to remind the kids not to bash each other in the head. That's not what I want my kids doing. The professional model of circus is people working together."

It's Hentoff's dream that someday circus will replace soccer in the pantheon of youth activities.

The future Human Cannonball spent her childhood and teenage years in the ring and in the two practice rooms backstage. The ring itself is a circus in miniature: twenty feet in diameter (most traditional circus rings are forty-two feet across), with a seventeen-foot-high ceiling, about twenty feet too low for the flying trapeze. There is also no cannon, partially because of space constraints, partially because, as Hentoff puts it, "Insurance companies flame out on the cannon thing." But Hentoff, who presides over the space like a combination of drill sergeant and Jewish mother, expects her young performers (including — especially — her "biologicals") to act like professionals. And if they don't practice or do their chores, they don't perform.

The circus performs more than 300 small shows a year, on weekend afternoons in the winter and every day during the summer, plus a full-scale spectacle every January. There's nothing about a Circus Harmony performance that says "kiddie circus." The performers are young, but the tricks are real and impressively difficult. And if someone drops a juggling club or falls off the high wire, she picks herself up without any fuss and tries again.

"Most people, when they hear Circus Harmony is a kids' circus, think: 'Oh, we'll go see the kids, it'll be cute,'" says Richard Kennison, who teaches juggling, acting and balancing. "Then they go from 'Awwwww' to awe."

Hentoff-Killian mastered the circus arts: unicycle, juggling, tumbling, high wire and, during Circus Harmony's appearances at Circus Flora, bareback riding. Her specialty, though, as she grew older, was aerial, particularly the lyra, a steel hoop that hangs above the ring. With her partner Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan, she perfected a double-lyra act, during which Kuciejczyk-Kernan would hold herself up on the hoop twelve feet above the ground while Hentoff-Killian would wind her legs around her partner's and slide down head-first until she hung suspended only by their joined feet.

"They would catch the trapeze with their toes," Hentoff remembers. "How can I say, 'No, you can't do this'? I did aerial, and I was fine."

This reaction, it must be noted, is far more sanguine than that of Hentoff's own father, the jazz critic and former Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who described his decade-long boycott of Jessica's performances in a 1986 essay for the Wall Street Journal. "We argued bitterly and raucously in my long-distance attempts to get her to stay on the ground," he wrote. After Jessica suffered a 30-foot fall, Nat bought her a net, which she never used. Finally Nat gave in and went to see Circus Flora and was converted: "Once the act began, I became so involved in the choreography that I forgot to be afraid."

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