FLAME RESISTANT: Hoop artist, Blount County girl Ali Blair dances her way through life’s wildfires
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Watching Alcoa girl Ali Blair glide through a crowded restaurant with a tray of drinks perched on hand and shoulder and a smile on her face, you can sense the grace and beauty that serves her so well within the sacred circle of the hula hoop.
Tattoos and dreadlocks mark her as a free-spirited wanderer, one of many on staff at the soon-to-shut-its-doors Tomato Head in downtown Maryville. As diners file in one door and out another, they scurry from the bat-wing doors of the clanging kitchen to the crowded counter of registers and soda fountains, weaving among one another like dancers. They’re beautiful souls, each and every one, but Blair radiates an inner serenity and light that makes her indispensable to her coworkers and to those who will mourn the restaurant’s passing from Blount County long after the doors close.
It’s an internal flame, in a manner of speaking. And this weekend, she’ll use some literal fire to stoke her inner light, when she joins her fellow artists in Biz’Cirque to perform on Market Square in downtown Knoxville. Part of a Halloween spectacular that will include live music, other performance artists and a huge crowd, it’s an event that would have seemed otherworldly to the Ali Blair of five years ago, were she to catch a time machine and see herself as she is today.
“I think she would recognize me as the person who was always deep down, trying to get out,” Blair told The Daily Times this week. “Back then, prior to leaving my marriage, I don’t think I really knew who I was at all. I felt like that event in my life gave me permission to explore the things I cared about and not worry about others’ opinions or expectations.
“I think she would be a little freaked out to see me today. I represent, appearance-wise, what I was scared of or had judgments about back then. Now, I know none of those things are true. This is how I’m supposed to look. I’m supposed to have tattoos and dreads. I’m supposed to be this free person I am now.”
Born and raised in Morristown, Blair’s first marriage was a short-lived one; her second gave her three children — Colton, 11; Nicholas, 8; and Dovie-Rhea, 6, all of whom attend Alcoa schools — but in many ways, she felt trapped by circumstance and choices. Her evolution as a woman and an artist, however, began in 2008, at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, when she saw a girl dance with a hula hoop.
“She was playing around with it through a Pearl Jam song, and I don’t think I breathed throughout that performance,” Blair said. “It was very much like watching someone who plays music or sings a song, where you go to that tangible place. A switched gets flipped, and the performer becomes a channel: They’re no longer emoting, because something is moving through them.
“Watching her hoop, you could tell she was lost in a state of flow. She wasn’t aware of anything outside of what she was doing with that hoop, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She was flowing so gracefully, and it was so beautiful to watch, that it touched something inside of me. She seemed so peaceful and connected, and it resonated with me so strongly, that I felt like I needed to go to that place.”
That moment marks the beginning of her journey. Something primal stirred within, and when she returned home to Jefferson County, she went online and started researching hula hooping as a form of dance. After discovering a tutorial on how to create a hoop from supplies found at a hardware store, she made one for herself and her three children and began studying YouTube videos of hoop performances.
The first time she tried it herself, however, she was humbled.
“It pretty much immediately fell to the ground,” she said. “I never had a hula hoop as a child; I played with them in gym class, but that was it. I would put it up on my waist and try to move, and it would immediately fall again. This went on for about two weeks, until I got to where I could keep it at my waist for a couple of minutes.
“But I was determined I was going to do it. I’m a little on the stubborn side anyway, and the fact that it kept falling made me even more determined. And once I was able to keep it at my waist and keep going, it was a very joyful feeling — happy and childlike. It felt really good, and it automatically put a smile on my face.”
Constant practice fanned the embers of her newfound passion, even as turmoil at home reached a boiling point. An unhealthy domestic situation led Blair to leave her husband for the sake of herself and her children; amid the chaos of reestablishing herself as a single mother and the accompanying financial burdens, she turned to her hoop in times of stress.
“Having this hoop that made me feel connected and happy and was able to kind of take me away from the things I was worrying about in my day-to-day life gave me a place to go,” she said. “I often called in my force field: Inside that hoop, nothing can touch me. It’s my safe space, and having that as an outlet for me proved to be very transformative in that situation.
“While I was figuring out how to be a single parent and raise my children on my own, it was a wonderful tool for me to gain confidence, and it was a healthy place for me to release any sort of negative feelings like aggression or sadness.”
Although she never considered herself an artistic sort before taking up the hoop, she discovered a side of herself – and of the East Tennessee arts community — she never knew existed. She began to forge friendships and artistic partnerships with others in the local circus arts community, a beautifully bizarre collection of aerialists, jugglers, acrobats and performers whose style of performance is reminiscent of a time when traveling carnivals roamed the countryside, traveling from town to town and bringing a taste of the exotic to small-town America.
One of those fellow performers was Jaia McClure, the founder of Ananda Dance Company and a professional belly dancer. The two forged an immediate friendship and became founding members of Biz’Cirque (pronounced bizerk), a company that performed its first variety show in November 2010 in Knoxville. Earlier that year, Blair was at a West Virginia festival when she witnessed fire-hooping for the first time, a spectacle that inspired her to take her own hooping to the next level.
“I saw a fire troupe that had eight or nine members and six or seven different fire tools they used, and they put together an awesome show,” Blair said. “I said, ‘I’m going to go home and learn how to fire hoop now.’ I learned some safety stuff, and a group of four or five of us started out doing it. Almost immediately, it stirred something very old and ancient and primal within me.
“The first time I felt the fire go around my body, it was a very spiritual experience. I started wanting to play with a lot of stuff on fire, so I started out with hoops and moved on to the staff.”
Blair and her children moved to Blount County a year ago to be closer to her fellow performers, with whom she works professionally and counts as her newfound family, she said. As McClure recruited other performers from various troupes and organizations around East Tennessee, fire became a regular part of Biz’Cirque’s show, as it will be on Saturday night. It’s a mesmerizing experience, akin to watching an ancient Incan ritual that combines elements of mystery, danger and beauty.
Add to that the ancient customs associated with All Hallow’s Eve, and Saturday night’s Market Square extravaganza could very well summon forth some unexplainable visions in the flames the Biz’Cirque ladies will wield. At the very least, it’ll be a celebration unlike many others this Halloween season.
“We try to be advocates for the circus arts in the community and raise awareness of this kind of growing subculture, but we want to be advocates for people being as safe as possible, too,” Blair said. “The circus arts around here are more of the Cirque du Soleil style – aerial silks and trapeze and hooping, as well as staff spinners and object manipulators and even a juggling community. People come together for the First Friday events that take place in Market Square and Krutch Park, and those things coincide with drum circles and the fire.
“More people started coming out about three years ago, and now we have 80 to 100 people showing up for First Friday events. That’s part of what’s happening on Saturday night. It’s going to be very much a carnival-type atmosphere on Market Square: Stilt walkers, belly dancers, hoopers, spinners are all going to be scattered over Market Square, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”