Kelly ‘Scully’ Rybarczyk is a 32-year-old self-described “corporate girl with a secret circus life.” That circus life primarily involves aerial stunts. What’s especially interesting about her fitness journey is how her involvement in circus performing and aerial shifted her attitudes toward physical activity, and reshaped her idea of what it could be and what it could mean in her life. Kelly is a great illustration of how physical activity can not only be a manifestation of your innate personality; it can be another mode of self-expression.
WB: Tell me about how you discovered aerial. How did you get into it?
KR: Doing aerial is the complete opposite of what my association was with fitness. Up to about two and a half years ago, for me, fitness was not a thing. I actually had very negative feelings toward fitness. I was the kid that took P.E. in summer school; I didn’t take it during the year because I was like, “I don’t need to go out and run around and grunt with people to prove that I’m a strong person!” I wanted my mental acuity to speak for itself. Somehow, paying attention to my body felt dishonest.
At some point, I got into doing hula hooping. It was kind of a trend and I thought it looked neat. But it was a skill — I wasn’t really doing it for fitness per se. There were things that you needed to practice, but suddenly you’re also doing all this cardio work, which isn’t what you’re really thinking about. That lead me to joining up with more circus people, and really getting involved in the circus area and I came across aerial. I thought, “This looks really cool. I’m going to try this.” I got in there, and the fact of the matter is, aerial is really hard. But I went in because I wanted to accomplish something, and fitness is just a byproduct of that. It’s a journey where you’re getting stronger, and you’re like “Whoa, two months ago I couldn’t accomplish this inversion, and now I’m pulling it off. I can do this thing that I really wanted to do.” People have said to me, since I’ve started doing it, “Gee you’re really strong!” I’m like, “Yeah I guess, but I get to do all this dance in the air. I get to do this beautiful self-expression. And communicate with people and do something that really interests me and challenges me.”
WB: You said that an interest in fitness seemed “dishonest” to you growing up — tell me a little more about that.
KR: I felt like it would diminish me in some way as a person. I was that nerdy kid that was kind of bookish, and I felt like if I showed any interest in my body, how it functions and moves, then I would be trading in all this work that I had done to prove myself mentally, just to be seen a certain way physically. It felt wrong to me to pay attention to that. It felt like I was giving part of myself away.
Now I feel differently about it since I’ve started taking aerial classes. I’ve changed the way I carry myself. One of my coaches actually told me when I first started taking aerial, “You walk around like the ceiling is two inches above your head. You’re folded in on yourself. It’s like you don’t want to be noticed.” Then as you do the stuff, you become more comfortable with your body, because you’re enjoying it, for yourself, not for anyone else. That opens you up. It’s not that you’re trying to get the world to notice you differently, you’re noticing yourself differently.
WB: How does aerial relate to who you are?
KR: Honestly, it’s become a huge chunk of my life. Being an aerialist is not friendly to time off. Your mind will do okay, but if you take a lot of time off from the training you backslide. You really have to commit a lot of energy towards it. I think about it a lot more; I find that I’m thinking about, what are different things I can do, because I like art, I like to put things into the world that people can enjoy. Another thing I do is burlesque on the side and a lot of times I incorporate aerial stunts or hoola hooping — it’s an opportunity for me to bring something to the audience that they will not have seen before.
I want to bring something artistic into the world. Doing this stuff has allowed me not only to express myself on paper, but physically also. It’s a whole different set of tools. If you’re into art, physical activity allows you to express yourself in ways that you couldn’t before. If you find something that truly brings you joy, it’s naturally an extension of who you were before, but it also provides growth. It’s not what I thought it was when I was young. You can use it as growth for yourself. People who write a lot, I’ve heard they get into jogging. They get into the rhythm, and they can think about what they want to write. Running helps them think. People who hula hoop sometimes will put paint on the ground and dance in the paint. It’s possible to do all these physical things and express yourself.
WB: What has aerial brought to you from a mental standpoint?
KR: It’s definitely made me a more confident person. When I was younger, I didn’t necessarily struggle with appearing outside the norm, but there were parts of my body that I was uncomfortable with. I wanted to cover it up all the time and ignore it. Now I’m more confident about it because I understand how it works. That confidence has allowed me to present myself to the world in a different way. It allows me to be more outgoing. It translates all across the board. I feel more in touch with myself. Also, this is a really difficult skill, so you learn the ability to persevere when something is hard. You work on your grit. That goes to other parts of your life. You think, “Here’s this other impossible thing that I thought I couldn’t do, so maybe if I apply this same sort of attitude and positive thinking to this other problem, or this other thing that seems difficult, I’ll see progress.”
WB: What are some rituals or habits that you’ve adopted that help keep you disciplined and in a positive mind/body space?
KR: I started a blog when I first started doing this. Documentation along the way has been really helpful. If you just look at yourself every day, you’re not going to see changes and progressions. Documentation helped me learn, and then farther along in the process I could look back on how far I’d come. If I was preparing for a competition and I was like, “I can’t get this split deep enough; it doesn’t look like all the other people I’m working around,” I could look back and say, “A year ago you didn’t even have a split, and now you have something that’s halfway decent.” It’s important to validate and enjoy the journey. Not just trying to get to the next step, but enjoying the progress.
I like to write about the experience. If you take a picture of yourself, write about what you’re feeling at that particular time. You can say, “I was proud of this” or “I was struggling.” I make notes about what I was trying to do, or advice coaches gave me, and it’s great because I can look back and even now as a teacher (I started teaching aerial as well as performing in January) I can understand where my students are coming from. Also, consistency is important, otherwise you’ll get frustrated. If you do something and then move away from it, you’ll be like, “Why can’t I do this thing anymore?” So I tell people be kind to yourself and be consistent.
WB: How do you define the words “healthy” and “fit”?
KR:Being healthy and fit means that you’re happy with what you’re doing, and you’re satisfied with yourself. My journey is not for everyone. I have students who come in, and they want to try a class. As long as they’re happy, they don’t have to do it every single day. They just need to come in and do what makes them happy. Fitness is for everyone, but it should engage your mind as much as your body so that you’re really enjoying it. I think a lot of times, we think fitness occupies this separate space from the rest of our lives. We clock out of work, we clock into the gym. That’s a very compartmentalized way of doing it. I think it’s nice if you can find some way, whether it’s building something on the weekends, or if you’re doing aerial, or circus, if you’re doing something physical that lets you get in touch with your body. Something that stimulates you in some way. I think that can be the road to fitness, and it’s different for everyone.
WB: What are some words of wisdom you’d pass on to someone trying to establish a more active lifestyle?
KR: I’d say, find something that you enjoy, and find a community that does it and get involved in that community. If you’re all by yourself it’s going to be that much harder. When I first started hula hooping I tried to build a community of friends. I could talk to them everyday, we’d talk through what we were working on and really help each other. Be kind to yourself also. Don’t measure yourself against other people. Measure yourself against where you were yesterday. Keep going forward. Everyone has a different starting point. I try to share where I was with my students. I’ll say, “Seriously, this is where I started.”
If you want to do it you can achieve it. So, be consistent, be kind to yourself, and find a community.