It’s impossible to count how many hoops are in orbit at any one time around the svelte body of Irina Akimova.
The Hula Hoops Manipulator keeps them spinning at such high rotation around her torso, limbs and neck, slipping yet another hoop seamlessly into the routine while simultaneously suspending one leg perpendicular in the air, that it’s all a bit of a blur. In fact, it’s seven hoops, just about the maximum that it’s physically possible to fit on the body at once.
Irina has been one of the star attractions of Cirque du Soleil’s production of Kooza. She is mesmerising to watch, defying human limits by co-ordinating physical contortion, stunning dexterity and balance, all with a smile on her face. Although Irina says it’s not so much innate skill as sheer had work.
She learnt the art of hula-hoop at age 12 at ‘circus school’ in her native Russia. “I had great teachers”, she says, humbly. “They gave me hoops and taught me the moves and I liked it”. When she got the call up from Cirque du Soleil at 23, she says she “was so happy I was jumping on my couch”.
Spinning hoops would be taxing enough at the best of times, but what happens to a pregnant hula-hoops manipulator, one profession where physical limits intervene in working through pregnancy? “I didn’t know I was pregnant for the first two months”, laughs Irina, who stopped working at three months and took a further three months off after her daughter was born. “It was hard to get back in shape because I put on 20kg and my boobs were bigger and I was out of practice. I wasn’t able to do the splits at first and my muscles had changed. It was like starting over again”.
Irina continued breastfeeding her daughter when she went back to the hoops which meant keeping her baby backstage so she could feed between performances.
Now that Veronica is older, she stays back at the hotel where she’s looked after by her father or babysitters or, on occasion, the ‘circus wives’, a heartwarming example of the camaraderie of the close knit circus community. Occasionally her daughter catches her mum’s performance and “she falls in love”.
“I have the best life”, Irina says. “I love the stage, the audience, performing. And I get to discover different cities, learn new languages, meet new people, show my daughter the world”.
Still, it can’t be easy juggling motherhood with a demanding vocation, living out of a suitcase. Irina approaches the challenge of being a working mum, miles from home, the same way she deals with her hoops, by believing everything is possible.
“I don’t have stress. You always can do more. We don’t have limits. If you think you can improve yourself more, you can improve yourself more. I try to enjoy every moment of my life. I really love it”.
The Carousel thanks Jacinta Tynan for this article.