'I joined the circus at 19 and now I'm performing for royalty': A millennial tells her story

Sabrina Barr

It’s a typical, clear winter’s evening in London, the temperature averaging at about 4C as thousands of people make their way to the world-famous Royal Albert Hall. Shandien Larance is indoors, meticulously applying her elaborate stage makeup as she prepares to display her talents as a hoop dancer for a very special audience.

Tonight’s show isn’t like the countless others the 26-year-old has spent on stage paying tribute to her Native American ancestry through dance. 18 years after first picking up a hoop and learning how to gracefully manipulate it with ease, the millennial is performing in front of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at the premiere of Cirque du Soleil’s Totem show in the English capital.

The hoop dancer is no stranger to the pressure of having to perform in front of large, intimidating audiences. But just like any other profession, being a circus performer can have its drawbacks.

Larance is only human, and as such, mistakes can sometimes happen on stage. When a mishap does occur, the connection the hoop dancer forges with her audience gives her the boost she needs to make it through the remainder of the routine. “It hurts a little at times when I drop a hoop or miss a beat, but the energy exchange between myself and hundreds of people is unbelievable,” the artist tells The Independent. “To conquer that moment together of finishing a strong powerful sacred, dance and hear the applause is the best feeling ever.”

From a very young age, it was apparent that Larance was always destined to become a performer. Growing up on a Hopi Native American reservation in New Mexico, USA, she was encouraged by her father from the age of one to dance every day after school. A quarter of a century later, Larance’s ability to dance has taken her around the world to countries including France, Spain, Russia and Japan.

Creativity runs in her blood through her parents, both of whom have artistic professions. Her older brother, Nakotah Larance, is a multiple World Native American Hoop Dancing Champion. Three years her senior, Nakotah is more than a sibling to Larance – he’s also her mentor, having first introduced her to hoop dancing when she was eight years old.

Hoop dancing is a very symbolic art in Native American culture. The four points on the hoops used by dancers symbolise the four seasons of the year, thus representing the circle of life and the transience of nature. “Art and Native American culture have always been present in my life and I consider myself very lucky to grow up around such talent and indigenous beauty,” the hoop dancer says.

Hoop dancer Shandien Larance (Cirque du Soleil)

Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Larance continually honed her skills as a hoop dancer. One of the most defining moments of her career arrived seven years ago, when the performer followed in her brother’s footsteps by joining the theatrical company Cirque du Soleil. “I have been with Totem since I was 19 and growing up is just hard in general. But Totem has always given me the support I’ve needed during my low points as an artist,” Larance states.

Being a part of the circus means having to learn how to adapt proficiently. Larance may only spend a couple of months in a country at a time, during which time she has to quickly acclimatise to her new surroundings and get used to an entirely new training schedule. When performing in Japan in 2016 and 2017, Larance would sometimes perform at midday. When appearing on stage in Spain in 2018, shows would start as late as 10pm.

Regardless of her ever-changing regime, Larance is committed to her craft, her main priority always being that she gets enough rest in preparation for her on-stage routines. “Some days I feel the only thing I really have control of is my hoops,” she says. “The world can be mad and life always has its ups and downs. But me and my hoops have a good bond and good relationship.”

While the hoop dancer may not lead the life of a typical millennial, she still finds the time in between performances to explore the various cities she’s temporarily residing in. One of Larance’s favourite pastimes is a quintessentially millennial activity – finding good brunch spots wherever she is in the world, opting for a frothy cappuccino as her caffeinated drink of choice.

Once Larance’s free time is over, it’s time to get back to the business of perfecting her hoop dancing routines. The hoop dancer’s latest show sees her perform both as a solo artist and as part of a duo, with fellow hoop dancer and partner Eric Hernandez.

While training during the day, Larance and Hernandez will spend around an hour together ironing out the details of their routines and refining their technique, giving each other guidance on their solo and duet dances. If training on stage in preparation for the live shows, Larance and Hernandez run through both of their routines at least twice to ensure they’re as polished as possible before the curtain call.

Hoop dancer Shandien Larance (Cirque du Soleil)

Having first started as a group of 20 street performers on the streets of Québec in Canada, Cirque du Soleil now boasts hundreds of artists from more than 50 different countries around the world. Meeting an array of talented individuals from different walks of life has been an especial highlight for Larance during her seven-year tenure with the company.

Despite coming from a family of performers herself, the hoop dancer was particularly struck by how unassuming her peers turned out to be. “I love meeting different artists of different skills,” Larance states. “It is the best when you meet them first and see what they can do after because you’re just amazed at what wonderful humble and caring people they are, as well as talented, extremely skilled and straight-up awesome as well!”

Back when Larance was a child, she set herself a goal that she wanted to achieve as a performer. Now, years later, the millennial has realised her aspiration of honouring her Native American heritage through dance. “I wanted to share my culture with the world,” the hoop dancer says.

The Cirque du Soleil ‘Totem’ show is being performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall until 26 February 2019, and at Neu Marx in Vienna, Austria from 9 March 2019 until 22 April 2019.

For more information click here.