“I’m a toy, a defective toy — there wasn’t enough fabric left when they made me,” 27-year-old Dilya Abdulaeva said to herself. At five feet and three inches (160 cm) tall, she was about to fly into a circus ring on a lyra, or aerial hoop, and hold her own weight of 310 pounds (140 kg) more than 13 feet (4 m) above the ground. Then, she would ride the lyra up to the top of the arena, floating 36 feet (11 m) high. Only a few days earlier, the circus producer had decided that Dilya, whose usual job was to care for the troupe’s trained cats and other performing animals, was going to appear in the ring as “something big” that would “shock” the audience. The crew didn’t even have time to sew a costume for her, so Dilya stepped out of the wings in black sweatpants, a yellow sweater, a mask, and a red wig.
Just before she jumped, Abdulaeva suddenly felt just how afraid she was of heights. She felt her teeth start chattering out of fear. The bald, tall, skinny, 60-year-old clown Anvar Libabov was standing next to her at the time; he noticed her nervousness and whispered into her ear, “Smile and don’t piss yourself.” Abdulaeva, who didn’t catch what he said, responded, “Please, please don’t touch me right now.” The clown waved his arm, wizard-like, toward the raised orchestra pit that was Abdulaeva’s launching pad, and the musicians inside broke out into the Spanish Dance from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The new acrobat quickly crossed herself, closed her eyes, and jumped. When she reached her maximum height of 36 feet above the ground, she glanced briefly around the stands, realized that her grip on the hoop was steady, pulled a fistful of glitter out of her pocket, and tossed it over the circus ring below…
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