If you've ever wanted to run away and join the circus, Beverly Sobelman—intrepid aerial artist and midlife career changer—can show you how.
In the spring of 2003, software developer Beverly Sobelman was 39 years old and near the top of the heap at Microsoft, sitting at conference tables with Bill Gates and "managing people who managed people who managed people," as she puts it. And then she quit. "I can't be in another meeting where people just get yelled at," she explained in her exit interview. Sobelman spent a few months teaching yoga and living off her savings, she says, "but I didn't know what the next thing was going to be, which was a little scary."
One day a rock-climbing buddy mentioned a class he'd been taking in circus aerials: the kind of midair acrobatics perfected by Cirque du Soleil. Sobelman tried a session and was instantly hooked—even obsessed. She traveled to Melbourne, Australia, for months of training with Circus Oz and the National Institute for Circus Arts. ("My teacher was a lovely old French lady who liked me because I wasn't 20.") Once back in Seattle, she started performing and teaching with a small troupe. "Aerials are a way to exercise that's fun and creative and social—even more so than your average dance or yoga class," she says.
Beginners might get the heebie-jeebies watching Sobelman shimmy 30 feet up a silk banner to dance, spin, and tumble in thin air. But aerials can be done by people of all ages and abilities—at least when Sobelman is your instructor. "If students can't manage a skill, I will find one they can do, so everyone walks out of the room feeling good," she says. "I get a lot of people who were traumatized in grade school because they couldn't climb a rope in gym class. There have been very few people I couldn't get up a rope."
By 2007 Sobelman's classes were so popular—particularly with women in their early 20s to mid-40s—that she founded Versatile Arts, Seattle's first full-time aerial studio. "I never wanted to take the risk of starting a business," says Sobelman, who teaches six group sessions a week and tutors students privately. "Yet here I am. I've accidentally created a community: People come for their classes, but they also drop by to see their friends and help each other."
She has also accidentally transformed herself. "I used to think of myself as the person who gets stuff done, not the person who comes up with the ideas," she explains. "I cooked from recipes and sewed from patterns. So the first time I created a performance routine that seemed interesting and creative and graceful—that was a revelation. Even now, when I hear a song on the radio and start thinking of choreography, or when I cook a meal based on whatever's in the fridge, I'm aware that I've changed."