Wheeling and feeling with Carly Schuna `06


Photo by Karney Hatch, contributed by Carly Schuna.

Carly Schuna `06 with her German wheel in her solo show, “It Takes Guts.”

Lilli Morrish, Arts Editor

Before she had a solo show, a nonprofit or five national titles, Carly Schuna `06 had the Klutz Book of Juggling. “It came with three beanbags,” Schuna said, “and I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever come across.” Now a professional circus artist, Schuna’s juggling skills have only improved since she first honed them at age 11, but it was not until 17 years later that she discovered her true life’s purpose — the German wheel. 

Schuna’s journey to the circus was anything but orthodox. She did not do her first trapeze trick as a toddler, nor did she run off to join the circus as a teen. While she wanted to be a contortionist as a child, the only box she ended up squeezing to fit into was a quad dorm room during her first year at Grinnell College, where she eventually graduated with a degree in English. This led her to a career as a freelance writer, editor and copy editor, which she still dabbles in when she is not otherwise occupied by her manifold circus-related responsibilities — “they complement each other really, really well,” said Schuna. 

Outside of journalism, Schuna continued to juggle, and in 2012, she found herself at the annual Madison-area juggling festival Madfest. It was here that she had her first experience with the German wheel, or Rhönrad, a hulking, person-sized apparatus composed of two parallel metal hoops connected by six bars. While the wheel is relatively common in Germany, Schuna said that there are less than a dozen programs for teaching German wheels in the U.S. 

“I had never seen a German wheel before,” Schuna said. “So I started rocking on the wheel, and I just felt like that was where I belonged. I’ve never had a feeling like this. I finally found the place where I’m supposed to be, where I’ve been supposed to be all along.” 

Before I discovered wheel I thought you could only fall in love with a person, but I fell in love with my wheel, and I’m still in love with my wheel.

— Carly Schuna `06

This moment sparked a decade-long love affair that has so far resulted in Schuna being crowned five-time U.S. Open All-Around Champion in wheel gymnastics and co-founding the Madison Circus Space, a volunteer-run nonprofit that has turned Madison, Wisconsin into a hub for the circus arts. The Madison Circus Space has provided an outlet not only for Schuna to practice, coach and perform, but also for her to share her boundless passion for circus with her community. 

During her time at Grinnell, she felt guilty for not finding a social justice cause that she felt committed to. “I volunteered for voting campaigns, and for soup kitchens and for nursing homes, and I just wasn’t enthused enough about any of them to really dedicate myself to them,” she said. “I thought, maybe I’m just, like, a really selfish person … but it turned out it just took me a long time to find it, and it’s circus.” 

Since the Space’s founding in 2013, Schuna has devoted thousands of volunteer hours doing everything from administrative tasks to laying wood floors.

Despite her own competitive prowess, Schuna has set aside competition for the time being to focus on coaching and performing. “I always found competition really stressful,” she said. “You have to use a certain type of music, you have to wear a certain type of outfit, and I wanted more creative freedom than that.” 

Creative freedom certainly abounds in her solo show titled “It Takes Guts,” a meditation on anxiety and circus performance involving trapeze, juggling, tricks with her Australian cattle dog-border collie mix named Piper, enormous plush puppets of body parts and, of course, her signature German wheel. The performance, which Schuna will perform at Grinnell College’s Flanagan Studio Theatre on April 8, 7:30 to 9 p.m., is based on a poem by John Roedel titled “The Anatomy of Peace.”  

Schuna said of the poem, “It really resonated with me because I’ve had chronic anxiety since I was a kid. A lot of the imagery that he mentions in this poem is stuff that I just experience on a day-to-day basis.” Like Roedel’s poem, “It Takes Guts” is a journey through the body, piece by piece, exploring the human experience in all of its messy, anxious, joyful glory. 

“What makes me feel most energized about circus is that it scares me so much,” Schuna said. While the thought of spinning inside of a giant metal wheel might be gut-wrenching for many non-acrobats, for Schuna, sharing her love of the circus arts — anxiety included — is what brings her life meaning. 

“Before I discovered wheel I thought you could only fall in love with a person, but I fell in love with my wheel, and I’m still in love with my wheel,” Schuna said. “It’s just what makes me happier than anything else.”

More on Schuna and “It Takes Guts” can be found on her website, www.headoverwheelscircus.com.