The first words that typically come to mind when hearing the term Circus Girl are “strong”, “tough”, “tenacious”, “beautiful”, “talented”… just to name a few. Here’s a woman who embodies every sense of those words (and then some)! Her name is Zahra McBee. She’s a Fire Captain for the city of Fayetteville, NC. Zahra has been in the firefighting profession since 1997, moving to North Carolina from Tampa, Florida, where most of her studying was in theatre.
Zahra is currently responsible for an engine and a squad, which involves 5 guys who work for her. The station she is assigned to is one of the busiest in the city with a schedule rotating 24 hour shifts. As if that wasn’t enough, Zahra formed a troupe with 2 other performers and runs a school teaching aerial arts called Air Born Aerial Arts. A few times a month she holds an aerial boot camp ; no tricks, no pretty poses, just hard-core strength and endurance. What else would you expect from a firefighting-aerialist?
CGM asks Zahra some burning questions about her life as a fireman and a circus girl.
ZM: I first discovered circus arts while seeing performers on aerial silk on TV. I knew instantly that I wanted to do that! Having a background in theatre, I have always been a performer at heart. Seeing aerialists use strength, grace and showmanship, I knew that it was for me. I was a little concerned though that I wouldn’t be able to find a means to learn it living in North Carolina! Fate stepped in though when I met my first instructor, who had just moved into town and was looking for a place to train and set up a learning space. Fast forward a few years and that’s when we formed the troupe. I have trained with other professionals since but will always be grateful for that initial introduction into this crazy world!
CGM: Do you ever feel like there’s an acrobatic connection between firefighting and circus?
ZM: The only main connection is strength and flexibility. The city I work for takes fitness very seriously. A few years ago they spent several thousand dollars getting personal trainer certifications for about 20 of us. This allows us to guide the department in fitness, healthy diets, strength training, etc. Because of my background with aerial acrobatics, I am able to train hard and push others to meet their max potential. I have noticed, because of my aerial fitness training, that I am able to do things on the job a lot easier now like crawling under floors and in attics (flexibility), pulling myself over walls and fences while wearing all of my gear (strength). I was able to design the P.T. program for our fire academy recruits. I love pushing these new guys and seeing the difference it makes in their performance on the fire ground. Sometimes when they see me show up to lead them in their daily P.T. they say, “Oh no!” because they know I will push them. Miraculously, even after they graduate, I get phone calls and emails asking for fitness advice!
CGM: What’s the hardest part about being a firefighter?
ZM: The hardest part of being a firefighter is the inability to make a difference. There are many great experiences, actually getting someone’s heart to beat again on its own, after it has stopped is a wonderful feeling. Seeing someone so grateful that their home and heirlooms were saved because we made an aggressive attack and stopped the fire makes it all worth it but, there are times when we can’t make a difference. There are times when, regardless of our efforts, someone doesn’t survive or someone is in a bad situation and won’t take steps to get out; and there’s nothing we can do. That is the most frustrating part.
“I took a turn into [firefighting] after one day witnessing a phenomenal rescue by a brave group of firemen. I knew I wanted to join the ranks of those guys.”
ZM: While being a fire captain is a full-time job, it doesn’t take up my whole life. The department I work for runs 24 hour shifts. Without trying to confuse you on the schedule, I will just let you know that it works out to me being on shift for only 10 days a month. Those 10 days are 24 hour shifts but still it leaves me with 20 days a month to devote to aerials! One of the reasons I was able to advance so quickly in my aerial skills was my schedule with the FD. I was training every day I was not on shift! We decided to start the troupe because there was the need in this area and we had the ability. I would not be able to do any of this with out my partner Natalie. She runs classes for me when I am working at the FD or out-of-town. She also designs and makes most of our costumes for the troupe. My passion is with aerial acrobatics and with Air Born Aerial Arts. If I could run away and only do circus full-time, I probably would! However, as many aerialists know, finding gigs is not always a guarantee and an aerialist’s career is all dependent on the body’s ability. One injury and you could be out of work for a while. Actually, that’s one of the main reasons I stress proper technique in classes. Nothing frustrates me more than when students come to me from other trainers and they aren’t necessarily “strong” but they can fight their way through tricks through sheer muscle memory. A long career begins with developing proper technique and good habits from the beginning!
CGM: A lot of people consider firefighters “heroes” and a lot of people think circus performers are “superheroes”, what would you say you are?
ZM: While the public may refer to firefighters as heroes, it’s rare you will find a firefighter to accept that title. For us, regardless of what the task Is, we are simply doing our job. Honestly, I get a great amount of satisfaction making an impact on someone’s life or changing what could be a grave outcome into a hopeful one, but I have never been comfortable with the title “hero”. I have never really understood the association with superhero and aerialist. Maybe because we are both in the air and wear bright-colored tights? Haha! I have always been a performer at heart and love making a positive impact. That impact could come from a job on the fire engine, a spectacular show, or teaching someone how to build their strength and bravery; to believe in themselves!
CGM: Well, Zahra, thank you very much for taking the time to tell us your story!
ZM: No need to thank me, thank you very much for allowing me the opportunity to be in your magazine and to show that there are so many types of performers out there! I really love to read all of the tips and tricks and other interesting articles [on CGM] so, to be a part of it is really an honor. ■