Rachel Stegman

Written by Marilyn Hawkes Category: Spotlight Issue: February 2016
Group Free

photo by Michael Woodall; Photographed at Circus School of Arizona


When performing one of her favorite circus tricks, Rachel Stegman hangs from a vertical rope 30 feet in the air with only the backs of her knees squeezing the rope to keep her stable while spinning in circles. That might sound dangerous to most people, but the energetic Stegman finds it “exhilarating, a better high than being on a rollercoaster.”

Her ardor for aerial acrobatics began when she was 8 years old, and participated in a circus program while on a family vacation at Club Med in The Bahamas. Stegman honed her skills at summer circus camps in the Poconos as a teenager, and eventually earned her Big Top bona fides from the renowned San Francisco School of Circus Arts. The Phoenix-raised funambulist moved back to the Valley in 2007 and opened the Circus School of Arizona in Scottsdale. Her life has now come full circle – she has two kids under 5 spinning plates and walking on low wires.

What kind of training does it take to be a circus performer?
Just because you have a lot of skill doesn’t make you a performer. It’s something that’s hard to develop. I think the skills of doing the actual tricks, most people can obtain. But being a true performer and having grace and charisma and expressing that to the audience is something that very few people can really develop. I think you’re born with it.

How does it feel to be up in the air performing?
It’s a great feeling. People watch and they’re just mesmerized with how much strength and skill it takes. You feel superhuman, like a superhero, when you’re up there. I think that’s what draws a lot of people to it.

Is that what drew you in?
There’s an adrenaline boost that you get with it that’s unlike anything else. It’s this amazing natural high because there’s both adrenaline and the whole aspect of your body being in top physical condition and you’re doing things that most people would think are impossible. I think there’s a danger factor, too. It’s not just the skill, but also that you’re doing something that’s kind of death-defying at the same time.

What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened to you while performing?
Warner Bros. Studios hired us as entertainers for an event. They had these chimpanzees that they dressed up in bridal and tuxedo wear and were having a wedding ceremony for them. And they also hired fireworks via someone else. The people who had the chimpanzees told Warner Bros. that they couldn’t do any kind of fireworks near the chimpanzees because they would freak out. The people doing the fireworks set them off and the chimpanzees went crazy and ran up a tree right next to us and were screaming during our act.

Are you still performing?
I’ve temporarily laid myself off as a performer because I’ve been so busy with the business aspect that I don’t have time to train. If I get to the point where I have more time to train and work out, I might do it again.

You say the circus business is a tough industry. What drives you to continue?
When you see the joy that people get both from doing it and watching the performers, it makes you push again. There’s a huge amount of stress involved in this business – the overhead is extremely high, the insurance, the equipment and you have people’s lives on your head – but there’s something about it that you just can’t kick.