Before Emily Tiller — a “cirque performer,” which she explains is more high-end than “circus,” though that description works too — moved to Nashville in early 2013, she and her husband lived in China. Tiller, already well-versed in belly dancing and fire dancing, began to train in the aerial arts. But neither she nor her Chinese instructor knew the other’s language. Through all of their training sessions, they never spoke.
“She was the only other woman in our training facility,” Tiller says of her instructor. “But she spoke no English, so training was her taking my foot, putting it in a knot, pushing my back up, pulling my hair to go this way — that’s how the training worked.”
Even as she recalls the process, Tiller’s face takes on an exasperated look. But the results were well worth it.
“It helped me learn to communicate with my body, for sure,” she says on the rooftop terrace of her apartment in the Gulch. She is wearing a cropped off-the-shoulder leotard on a day with temperatures that barely approach 40 degrees. With a broad smile and an eager attitude, Tiller’s ready to prove she’s up to it.
“I can stay up here all night!” she jokes with an accent that might make you think of a classic Southern belle, if it weren’t for all the spandex.
Tiller operates Beyond Wings, a collective of around 20 cirque entertainers who perform at events as varied as last month’s Black Diamond shows at 12th & Porter to backyard parties in Belle Meade. She also teaches aerial yoga classes at East Nashville’s Bohéme Collectif, and somehow still manages time for charity work — teaching hula dancing to nursing home residents.
But what everybody asks about, she says, is the fire. It’s easy to see why: When Tiller grabs two claw-shaped metal forks with tips that look like burnt marshmallows and sets them ablaze with a cigarette lighter, the terrace is transformed into a stage, and everyone else stands transfixed.
“When I got to Nashville my business really blossomed,” she says. “Nashville has so many opportunities that I barely even have to go out to get them — they just come to me.” She’s set her sights even higher, though, and hopes she’ll be successful enough to operate her own studio some day. It’s hard to question that her determination will pay off — even when she isn’t wielding flaming sticks.