Real Life

Foot juggler, Emma Phillips, was inspired by the Weekly

The first foot juggler to come out of New Zealand,
Emma Phillips, 32, deftly spins and tosses umbrellas, carpets and 10kg tables using nothing but her toes – a feat that even her trainers told her would be impossible

By Fleur Guthrie
"Growing up in Whangārei, I was obsessed with dance and loved performing on stage, but I had never been exposed to acrobatics or circus theatre. Then at 15, I saw the Cirque du Soleil show Quidam. I don't think I blinked the whole time! It opened my eyes to a whole different world and planted a seed.
At the same time, there was also an article about Cirque du Soleil in the Weekly and at the bottom it said, "If you want to run away with the circus, email New Zealand's only circus school in Christchurch." So, I did – from my mum's email address because I didn't have my own – and ended up going down there at 17 to do a Diploma of Circus Arts [which is no longer available] at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology.
Cirque du Soleil also sparked my next move, to China in 2009. I watched a telethon on TV, which featured the Chinese umbrella juggler from its Dralion show. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, but I could never imagine myself being able to do that.
Not for the faint-hearted, Emma has split open her shin bone in a juggling mishap.
I was invited to apply for the Beijing International Arts School, as one of 15 foreigners among 500 Chinese pupils, majoring in foot juggling and contortion. It was a massive culture shock. I remember standing in Tiananmen Square, thinking the entire population of Auckland could fit in it.
Umbrella juggling was so hard. I had a teacher standing by my side, holding it above my head for whole lessons. I could barely do it and knew that if I wanted to be world-class, I had to go harder and develop my mental strength.
So, I found the Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School in a small village in Hebei province, in northern China, which had no foreign students. I caught a train to the village to meet the people at the school and had a friend who spoke fluent Mandarin on the phone as my translator.
'Incredibly, Kiwis had donated $5000, so my training could continue'
The teachers thought I was a bit old – they mostly taught kids between four to 16 years, who were training to one day support their families – but they accepted me.
When I arrived, I could barely speak Mandarin. However, because I was fully immersed, I started to pick up the tones, and over time was able to communicate with my teachers and fellow students.
I saw table juggling at the school for the first time. In China, you're either a light-foot juggler (umbrellas or carpets) or a heavy-foot juggler (tables and massive pots etc).
When I said I wanted to do both in the same act, which no one else in the world does, I had a tough time convincing my teachers it would be possible. The tables are wooden with metal reinforced corners and can definitely crack a skull in half if you drop one.
Multi-skilled Emma in Africa with an aid organisation in 2018.
Halfway through my stay, a crew from TVNZ 1's Seven Sharp came to film me. They were the first foreigners I had seen in six months and they even brought me Toffee Pops. When it aired, the presenters said, 'If you want to support Emma's Go Fund Me page, here's the link.'
Up until that point, I had self-funded everything, inevitably running out of money. The next morning, I woke up and, incredibly, Kiwis had donated $5000, so my training could continue.
My most dramatic performance was when I was working on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. I was juggling my table very, very fast while upside down. But there was quite a rough swell and the ship moved, throwing me off my chair and then off the stage. The table took a chunk out of my shin bone.Working in Germany for five years was like a fairy tale. I'd finish a contract one day, catch a train and start another contract in a new city the next day for another six months.
'I've spent many years also interning with aid organisations'
In early 2020, I was in rehearsals for the biggest show of my career – a one-year tour with the famous Roncalli Circus Theatre – which only takes 12 acts from around the world. But on premiere night, Covid restrictions on group gatherings forced the show to postpone. My life as a world-class foot juggler stopped when the pandemic started.
My parents had always told me that I had to have a plan B, because when your career is reliant on your body and live performance, you never know when an injury (or pandemic!) might hit. So, I've spent many years also interning with aid organisations, which is my other passion. I've lived and worked in Africa, Thailand and the Philippines for NGOs and organisations working with human trafficking, AIDS, and protection and rehabilitation from child sexual violence.
Being grounded in New Zealand, I have spent the last two years in voluntary roles, being trained up in palliative care and victim-based trauma, using this time to take a step in the direction of my future career."
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  • undefined: Fleur Guthrie