Hentoff is aware that, given the family history, and also her role as Hentoff-Killian's teacher, it would be hypocritical of her to avoid the Human Cannonball act. She mothers her daughter in other ways: She used her circus connections to conduct a background check on Brian Miser, the man who would be training Hentoff-Killian on cannon, and she traveled to Boston to watch the early training sessions and to Tampa for the circus' opening night. And like many mothers, she brags about her daughter's exciting job and takes some credit for her success. "I trained her," she says, "so she could physically do this."

Circus is beautiful. It is amazing. It also hurts. A lot. Your muscles ache from being used in unexpected ways. Your hands blister from gripping the bar of the trapeze until you finally form calluses. You get banged on the head with juggling clubs, and, should you manage to catch them, they can tear your fingernails out.

Circus tricks, however, are often not as death defying as they appear. Hentoff cites studies that show that kids in circus-arts programs are injured far less frequently than kids who play sports. Those results may be skewed by the fact that there are simply fewer kids who take circus classes, but Hentoff says that since she began teaching circus in 1989, she can count the number of injuries on one hand, and that none was more severe than a broken wrist.

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

"It's what you're willing to put up with," Hentoff says. "Tricks are based on natural behavior. If the body couldn't do it, you couldn't do it. It depends on how much you want to push your body. Desire trumps talent."

"With [Hentoff-Killian] it was way more about desire than talent," remembers Karen Schellin, Circus Harmony's general manager. "For one of the shows, Elliana did the loop walk. There's the bar with rope loops attached. She hangs by her ankles upside-down and then puts her foot in the next loop. It's like walking upside-down. I watched her practice with bloodied, blistered ankles. She worked through the pain. It was desire more than anything else."

Getting shot out of a cannon is the hardest trick Hentoff-Killian has ever had to master.

"The pain is hard to describe," she says. "It's like you wake up with a 'whaaaaat-did-I-do-last-night?' kind of hurt. I was using new muscles and learning new body controls. My body was not happy with me."

There was also getting her head around the fact that she was going to have to get shot out of a cannon once, twice or three times a day for the next two years.

Circus performers tend to speak in vague bromides about their ability to pull off impossible-looking tricks. They say things like, "Mostly it's knowing you can do it." And maybe there's no other way to explain it. For weeks you're riding a unicycle alongside the City Museum's Tiny Town, hanging onto the railing, practicing tightening your stomach muscles, aligning your hips and shoulders just so, learning how it feels to do it properly, until one day you realize you don't need the railing anymore.

But what sort of practice prepares you for getting shot out of a cannon?

Hentoff-Killian considers herself fortunate that she only had to worry about that for a single sleepless night. "I knew I'd have to do it eventually," she says philosophically.

It felt very different, though, lying in the cannon before that first shot. It was to be a short, low shot, just so she could get the feel of it, but still. She was about to be shot out of a cannon.

I have to tell them "go," she thought, and I don't want to tell them.

She did not think of the loop walk, or the lyra, or any of the other tricks she'd mastered. Instead, she thought of the contract she'd signed the week before, and of how badly she wanted the job, and how she wanted to prove to herself that she could do it.

If I want it so bad, she thought, I have to do it. So all right. Here I go.

After the first shot, she was sure: She never wanted to do it again.

"The physical part is hard," she says, "but the mental part is harder. I take the attitude of mind over matter, but this is matter over mind. You have to let it do its thing and go along for the ride."

It was the contract that made her climb back into the cannon for another day of training. But a funny thing happened that second day, after she took her third-ever shot, the first one that went the way it was supposed to.

"It was amazing! It makes the bad shots worth it. I was hooked. I'm flying! It's like being on a roller coaster, except without the stomach drop."

The history of the human-cannonball stunt is rife with stories of death and debilitating injury, beginning with the very first human cannonball, a fourteen-year-old girl known as Zazel who took her first shot at London's Royal Aquarium on April 2, 1877, and went on to break her back a few years later when she missed the net while performing in P.T. Barnum's circus. ("Where were her parents?" Hentoff frets.) Over the years at least 30 more human cannonballs have been killed in action; the most recent, Matt Cranch, died in 2011 in England when his net collapsed.

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