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Denver aerial silk acrobat hopes to compete again after battle with cancer

Poster for the upcoming aerial arts fest.  Pictured are acrobats are Mary and Tyce Nielsen.
Poster for the upcoming aerial arts fest. Pictured are acrobats are Mary and Tyce Nielsen.
Scott Murphy

All kinds of things can go wrong when you're doing aerial silk acrobatics.

Tatanya Hamermesh
Courtesy Tatanya Hamermesh

"There are no nets or safety wires, and you're up about twenty feet off the ground," said Tatanya Hamermesh, who started out on the flying trapeze at age five, and graduated to "Aerial Silk" shortly after she got out of high school.

"Open drops are the most dangerous. You wrap the fabric around your waist and then do one drop per wrap. You're supposed to be counting your drops so you know when you're done with your wraps. When you get to the end, you just hang on. But you can miscalculate and run out of cloth and drop to the floor, or you can pull your shoulder out of joint if you don't have the strength to hold your weight with one arm. You need a strong grip and a strong core to get your butt over your head, and strong legs to keep your lines straight."

While Hamermesh has never had an accident, something more insidious happened to her a couple of years ago. She'd been doing aerial gigs around town, most notably at Denver's Church Nightclub, and one night in the middle of her routine she heard a loud pop in her pelvis.

"I was approaching my 30s," she said, "so I thought maybe it was weakness or age. I rested it and began going to physical therapy, but it kept happening. Then I started feeling a lump on my pelvis near the groin."

Just over a year ago, she went in for an MRI and a biopsy. The news was not good.

She had, she was told, Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer that is almost unheard of in adults. "It's a non-genetic cancer," she explained, "a completely random gene mutation that had already metastasized to my lungs. I was in shock. I never felt sick or out of breath. Other than the injury, I felt fine."

Equally devastating was the fact that she received the news just three days before she was scheduled to be married. "We went ahead with the wedding anyway," she said, "and I started chemo four days later."

Over the past twelve months, she's received 16 rounds of chemo, 13 blood transfusions, a month of radiation on her pelvis, and another month of radiation on her lungs. In what she now refers to as "my lovely year on the couch," she spent much of her time reflecting on her life.

"I've always had a hard time focusing," she said. "I always had ten balls in the air. I wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to travel. I wanted to work for the UN. But aerial arts were always there in the background. My one regret is that I never really gave my aerial career my full attention. If I live, that's all I want to do. Cancer forced me to determine what's really important. It was a hard lesson."

A year since her diagnosis, Hamermesh is still not entirely out of the woods. She gets a CT scan every three months and so far, the pelvic tumor appears to be in remission, though her doctors are still undecided about her lungs. Even so, she felt good enough this past March to join her husband for a long-overdue honeymoon in Ecuador, Argentina, and Uruguay.

She's also gradually re-entering the world of aerial dance. She's working out again, and serving as General Director for the North American Aerial Acrobatic Arts Festival scheduled for May 30th and 31st at the King Center at Auraria.

"The Aerial Arts Festival was the brainchild of my mom," she said. "It's designed to give semi-pros some exposure, and also to build a community of aerialists. It's inspiring to see so much talent coming to Denver. I hope by next year I'll finally have a chance to compete. But the irony is that now that I know what I want to do, my body may not let me do it."

For more info:

Aerial Arts Festival

Aerial Silk

Ewing's Sarcoma
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"Cowboys, Yogis, and One-Legged Ski Bums," a collection of the best of Don Morreale's stories, is scheduled for release next month.

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