Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi is a lot of things: a respected teacher, a fierce choreographer, and a devoted mother. Sylvia is also a second-generation circus performer, and has been around the circus since childhood. She was recently inducted into the Circus Ring of Fame in Sarasota, Florida, alongside her mother and brothers. Together, they make the Hernandez Troupe.
The Hernandez’s circus legacy began in Germany during World War II. According to Sylvia, her mother, Lisette, lived in a loving foster home in Nuremberg. But when the war struck, Lisette’s biological mother arrived to take her back. Lisette was then forced into learning and performing difficult and strenuous circus stunts as a way to earn money.
Because of this grim history, the Hernandez family has a mixed relationship with circus. While they went on to reclaim the craft, they acknowledge its bittersweet role in their lives.
“Just recently when we were in Florida, my mother said something about wishing we just lived a normal life,” Sylvia said. “That surprised me. But I do, too. Sometimes I wonder what life would look like without circus. What if I just went to work, and then came home, and then the day was over?”
The Hernandez Troupe performed around 500 shows in the 1970s and ‘80s, alongside companies like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Sylvia was a flyer, meaning she was frequently thrown and caught by other performers in the acts. A great majority of her stage-time was spent doing stunts in the air. She doesn’t perform much anymore, but her skills led her to become an expert choreographer and teacher.
Sylvia is the artistic director and master teacher at The Actors Gymnasium in Evanston. She helped found the gym in 1995, and since then has encouraged thousands of students to explore their physical abilities throughout the years. The Actors Gymnasium mission promises to help students learn to fly—physically, emotionally, and creatively.
Sylvia focused on rehearsal for The Actors Gymnasium’s 2019 winter show, All The Time In The World: An Imaginary Circus. The Actors Gym’s winter show has been a beloved tradition for Evanston residents for the past decade.
Sylvia watched as three performers practice a slapstick comedy scene for the winter circus. The show is about a girl named Trudy who escapes the stress of her chaotic family with the love of an imaginary friend.
Sylvia smiled in front of a promotional poster for the winter show. Her son, Griffin, recently moved away to college. When asked how different life is now, and if she feels more absorbed in her work, “Nothing is different,” Sylvia said. “I’ve always been absorbed in my work.” Griffin is a circus performer, too.
Outside that dark window, snow fell heavily. Sylvia said the only sacred thing in her house is her coffee station. She doesn’t want anything—or anyone—near it. It gets her through the day.
Sylvia looked on as actors Cordelia Dewdney and Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel practiced a spinning trick, blue silks flying behind them.
Actors Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel and Walter Briggs practiced with the trapeze. “The most magical thing about working with Sylvia is her tough love, and her firm belief that anything is possible,” Briggs said. “When you accomplish something, she’s lovingly unimpressed. She says, ‘Okay, now do this!’ You can always go a little further, push yourself a little more. It will be painful, but you’ll heal, and be stronger for it.’”
Dewdney practiced an upside-down pose one morning at The Actors Gymnasium. “Sylvia always sees your potential,” Dewdney said. “She sees the strongest version of a person rather than assuming their weakness or lack of capability. So as a student, you are able to change what you think your own limits are.”
Sylvia demonstrated on the trapeze. In the Actors Gymnasium’s first semester of classes in 1995, 130 students enrolled. Now, the gym offers year-round circus classes, as well as a nine month professional training program.
Sylvia’s silhouette as she swung from a hanging silk. “I hate being the last person in any room,” she said “It reminds me of my father, who used to do these extraordinary, glamorous tent circuses outside. And the next day, after the audience was gone and everything was packed up, he would come by himself to fill the holes in the concrete. The holes where the tents were. Like, the least glamorous thing you could imagine after such a day.”
Header image by Caroline Macon Fleischer