Leaps of faith

Alvin Tam counsels others on conquering their fears by flinging their bodies into harm’s way

Alvin Tam sees the art of pushing the body as a way to confront the fears of the soul.
Photo: Bill Hughes

This is a story about fear. Not fear of the economy. Not fear of death. But fear of the unknown, the uncertain. Alvin Tam calls this the oh shit moment. The former Cirque du Soleil acrobat knows a couple of things about that moment, when you realize you’re about to try something that’s right on the edge of your capacity, or—as has happened to him—when you’re in the middle of trying something and you’re somewhere in mid-air.

There was the 10-foot fall in Paris he took where he was parallel to the ground—he saved himself from serious injury by repositioning his body into a shoulder roll on the way down; there was the time he mis-timed a jump in by a few feet and had that Wile E. Coyote I-just-went-off-the-cliff sensation of watching a moving platform he was trying to reach disappear from his view—it was a 30-foot free fall before the safety harness kicked in.

Life After Cirque

But the real serious moment was when he crashed through an airbag and onto the concrete beneath it. He suffered a concussion but didn’t experience the oh shit moment until the next day, when the act of forming a single thought took more effort than he had. If you can’t think and you can’t do anything, who are you? “You think you’re dead, because the things you think you are are gone.”

Tam now runs a collective called Soul Acrobats, a mix of motivational instruction and physical fitness training designed to help people overcome their own fears. Hanging out to talk about fear might have made for a vague, New Age-y way to spend a day. Instead, Tam gave me a few visceral chances to explore my own rather truncated capacity for dealing with my fear.

A few weeks ago Tam invited me to Cactus Joe’s Blue Diamond Nursery, tucked in the far southwest end of the Valley. Tam was there with a motley trio of men, who were training to become the first instructors of his Acrofit training system. Fire-spinning was involved, and Tam, along with his wife, Jamie, was putting the men through their paces.

The weather was brisk. The sun had just set. “Do you want to stand on my shoulders?” he asked me when I made my way out to the enormous back lot of the nursery.

“Sure,” I said.

(Note: The Spontaneous Yes is an effective way to overcome your fear. Because by the time you realize you should have thought things through and answered, “No way, but thanks!” it’s too late.)

I had never stood on anyone’s shoulders before, and if you had asked me to stand on a block of wood as tall as Tam, I might have shrugged it off. A block of wood would not move. A man might.

Tam gave me two pieces of advice. One: Keep my toes pointed inward. Two: Let him take care of the balance. In other words, don’t try to wobble around finding balance. Leave it to the professional. Oh, there was one more … even at this low height, don’t look down.

Tam's methods of conquering fear includes fire spinning.

Tam's methods of conquering fear includes fire spinning.

Standing on the rocks, surrounded by Jamie and a group of spotters, with a photographer ready to document me falling on my ass, I took off my shoes and socks. With Tam squatting down a quarter way, I stepped onto his thighs, then hoisted myself onto his shoulders, in stages, like a ladder. Tam’s legs, as you might expect, are like stone.

Standing on Tam’s shoulders is one thing when you’re crouched down and you have a vice grip on both of his hands. Scary, yes—the spotters suddenly seemed far away, unlikely to be there in case of a fall—but manageable. But the real test of fear was to come. First, I had to try to stand up straight. Then, slowly, he let go of my left hand and grabbed my left ankle.

Talk about an oh shit moment. Those very words were stirring angrily in my belly, like gas. The right hand he let go very slowly, and at that point, a giant, soul-shaking “No!” began to vomit up toward my throat. He must have sensed this, because he called out, “Hold it for 10 seconds!”

What’s the big deal, you ask? True, I was only five feet off the ground. But having his hands on my ankles was both the only safety net I had and a sign that I was sort of locked in. I couldn’t just jump clear. There was, for the moment, no easy way out of this. Only through.

And so Tam counted off 10 really long beats, and the photographer snapped away, and I looked up to the sky, arms outstretched a bit (so the spotters could get me more easily) … and I’m not here to tell you that feeling of fear ever really went away, or I found some kind of Zen-on-the-mountaintop moment of inner calm. If I was thinking anything, it was, “Man, this guy is a slow counter. I’ve got to get down.”

But, for a second or two, somewhere between counts 6 and 7, or maybe it was 7 and 8, I knew that I would pass this small test. I could recognize my fear, look it in the eye and realize that while I hadn’t vanquished it, it hadn’t vanquished me.

Tam, who is 34, grew up in Edmonton, Alberta. He started in the circus when he was 19. He had no prior experience as an acrobat. He had taken some theater in high school. He was physically fit. But he was thinking of a career in science or engineering and was “deeply interested in physics.”

Nevertheless, he had auditioned for a few acting schools in Montreal, but never considered the circus, which was “clowns, not serious theater,” until he learned that Canada’s National Circus School included French instruction in its curriculum. So Tam decided to become an acrobat because he really wanted to learn French.

It wasn’t until he arrived in Montreal that he understood what he had gotten himself into. The school was like Hogwarts for circus performers—people flying in the air, pulling off amazing tricks. Tam had about three years, he says, of oh shit, and the Russian coaches, who pushed him hard, didn’t make it easier.

Still, he was willing to try anything. It took him until his second year before he had mastered the press handstand—the forearms support the body as it slowly curls off the ground in a tuck position, then the body unfurls like a sail into the handstand. When he got it, he thought, “I can get every other move I try,” and hunger began to conquer fear.

After four years of intense training, he began his career with a short stint in Atlantic City, then traveled the world. There was a 70-city tour through Japan, performances in Brazil and across the United States. “I wasn’t the top artist, but I was very good in many disciplines. I was known as the guy who could do anything.”

Eventually he wound up in Paris, working for a popular musical that incorporated the French art/sport known as free running, where athletes brazenly, beautifully run through the urban environment—running up walls, jumping off walls, turning the urban landscape into a giant sandbox.

In Paris, he got a call from Cirque, which was auditioning performers for a new television series. Tam had auditioned for Cirque before—he’d been offered a job, but turned them down, because it wasn’t what he was looking for. This time he wanted the part, and quickly booked a ticket to Montreal. He came in feeling confident. There were 20 other candidates, and he thought, “It’s gonna be a cakewalk.”

After three hours of auditioning, everyone broke for lunch. When Tam came back, he was told he hadn’t made the first cut. He couldn’t believe it. To get cut in the first round? It was impossible. “It stung horribly.”

A hands-free shoulder stand (featuring our own T.R. Witcher).

A hands-free shoulder stand (featuring our own T.R. Witcher).

Even the casting agent didn’t know what had gone wrong. On the long plane ride back, he had time to consider what he could take from the rejection. The lesson he came away with was not to worry about auditions, about success or failure—but simply to go have fun with the work. “You have to consciously not think about going after the target.”

In 2002 he was called by Cirque again, this time to participate in . He spent a year and a half in Montreal in planning for the show, and then was selected to the cast. He had some experience doing acrobatics on a wall, and the huge moving stage, which could tilt to become vertical, was right up his alley.

The Cirque performers—with their seemingly superhuman levels of physical strength, balance and control, the way they make the impossible doable—would hardly seem to know about the fear that grips the rest of us. But Tam wants to dispel the myth that acrobats are mystical people who feel no fear. “If you think it’s scary, for the acrobat, the first time at least, it’s just as scary.” The difference? The “acrobatic mind-set forces you to recognize it and go through it.”

But how? The key lesson—and the lesson at the base of his regimen—is to recognize the fear. Before he performed, he often felt like “I had to piss my pants.”

In he performed the cliff act, the battlefield scene and the swing-pole sequence, where giant yellow poles swung back and forth 100 feet in the air and Tam and other artists leapt from one to the other, sometimes clearing distances of 20 feet. Probably the supreme pants-pissing move was to jump, fly, do a half-turn in the air and catch the pole with his shoulder.

An acrobat may seem to possess an unlimited supply of hubris—it may take years of intense training, but it also takes stones to throw yourself 20 feet into the air 100 feet up. But that hubris is more than met by the way the acrobat evaluates risk, which is to say, by the way he or she confronts and manages fear. “Can I make this jump? What are the consequences?”

But conquering fear in one arena doesn’t mean it’s conquered in all arenas. During his circus days, Tam had taken a break in 2000 to pick up a business degree, and had always thought about trying to start a business of his own. After a nine-day solo motorcycle trip through California in 2005, he was determined to do something entrepreneurial, something creative that would help other people achieve their dreams. He knew nothing about running a business, but he realized the same lessons in managing one’s fear 100 feet above a stage were still in effect. If he were going to run a company based on helping people overcome their fears, the business itself had to be living proof he was walking the walk.

Out of that came a collective called Soul Acrobats, a company which, he says, is meant to provide fitness for the body and the soul. There are instructional and motivational DVDs; a workout regime called Acrofit that involves free running, fire-spinning, backflips and handstands. Along with his wife, Jamie, a yoga instructor, dancer and fire-spinner, he runs the Barefoot Sanctuary, a yoga and fitness studio inside the Whole Foods store at Town Square.

He left in 2007 to devote himself to his new enterprise. “Everything that’s fitness for the soul can be accessed through the body.”

With that in mind, I joined Tam for a taste of his Acrofit system, and another lesson in the joys and perils of confronting your fear.

We met at Exploration Park in Mountain’s Edge, and began with a light bit of free running, hopping up on concrete ledges, running across their tops, jumping off, jumping back on. Tam flew over park tables and benches, threw in the odd handstand. Mostly, I called for “time” every chance I got, completely out of breath from an activity that looked like child’s play.

Next he moved on to a curving concrete bench, about three feet tall. Tam had me, along with the Weekly’s videographer, Scott, jump through space from one side of the bench to the other. We started small, slowly taking bigger jumps, slowly approaching the oh shit moment, where the distance between takeoff and landing begins to loom larger and larger.

One method of overcoming fear is to try to game the system. To sort of unconsciously fake the oh shit moment. Staring at one jump, I said the words, “Oh shit,” and tried to make them convincing. Maybe Tam would let me off the hook. But Tam’s been doing this for a while. He’s tough to fool. I did that jump and comfortably cleared the two-foot-square landing.

The real fear moment came on the next jump. Maybe five feet or so. On the ground it would be nothing. In the air, even just three feet off the ground, the mind filled with the possible angles upon which my body could fail to clear the distance and come up short. Maybe my shins smashing into the side of the wall? Maybe my ankles banging into the top. Fractures? Broken bones? Blood?

I paused. I gathered myself. I stopped. I thought. I didn’t even have to say “Oh shit,” because as soon as you stop, your body has signaled its oh shit intentions very loudly. You don’t have to say anything.

Tam hopes his students recognize that point and then jump anyway, and live for a moment right on the edge of their abilities. I jumped.

We ended the session with the wall. Trying to climb up the wall—no, run up the wall, Jackie Chan-style. This wall’s 10 feet tall. The trick is to try to get some friction on the foot step, propel one more step up and use the upward momentum to fly you close enough to the top where you can grab the ledge and easily hoist yourself up.

I tried and failed. The fear factor wasn’t so high this time … trying to get to the top carried no risk. But even so, there’s a moment of having to trust the idea that you can propel yourself up a wall, gravity be damned.

Scott, the videographer, managed to scale up to the top, and then later dislocated his shoulder. Tam immediately went into healer mode, counseling Scott about the normality of the pain, about the way the body functions. He tried to push the shoulder back into place, as Scott momentarily drifted in and out of consciousness. We wound up taking Scott to the emergency room, where a doctor essentially reversed the move UFC fighters do to wrench arms to the point of dislocation.

Scott was a trooper, and Tam was philosophical about the downside of all of this ninja training. Later, in thinking about, it brought me back to the lesson Tam had learned when he had his concussion—when his body and mind both seemed to take a temporary vacation. For him, underneath both was what he called an enormous life force. “We are not of our body and mind,” he realized.

If it sounds a little too mystical for this fear-laden age, then I suggest you stand on someone’s shoulders for a moment of clarity. Perhaps beyond the outer veil of the fears that constrain us, limit us, box us in and, unbeknownst to us, define us—perhaps on the other side of that, life is full of such moments.


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