How a Nice Jewish Girl Became the Youngest Human Cannonball
Gemma “the Jet” Kirby can fly. In fact, it’s her job. As the youngest female human cannonball with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Xtreme, the 25-year-old dynamo hurtles through the air at every performance. She’s also the only Jewish cannonballer currently with the traveling troupe.
Kirby isn’t the first woman to go soaring through the air. The first human cannonball is credited to Rosa Maria Richter who, in 1877, was launched 100 feet in the air by “The Great Farini,” who invented the contraption. The act was a huge success, but when a launch went awry, Richter broke her back, effectively ending for good her career as a cannonballer.
Fortunately, it’s much safer to be a human cannonball today, but that doesn’t mean Kirby is completely without risk every time she scrunches herself into the cannon. Since human cannonballs become part of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey program, more than 30 deaths have occurred, usually as a result of a bad landing, rather than the result of being shot out of the cannon itself. The most recent death occurred in Kent, United Kingdom, when a cannonballer died after a safety net failure. Every single move Kirby makes is calculated and she follows very specific steps to get into the zone. She has to trust that her triggerman, Dima, has set everything up properly for a smooth flight.
Setting up a cannonball for a shoot is a delicate process. When people think of cannons, they tend to think of gunpowder, but in fact, compressed air is the more typically used material at the circus, with gunpowder being used on the outside of the cannon for visual intrigue. A cannon works similar to a catapult in that it shoots whatever is in the cannon up and through the air, usually using 3,000-6,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. Kirby flies through the air at upwards of 70 miles per hour with an altitude of up to 75 feet (the world record is 74.6 miles per hour). The landing surface is either a net or an inflatable target, generally 50 x 25 feet. While that sounds like a large enough landing point, things can go awry, especially if an inflatable target is involved. There might not be enough air in the target or it might be set mere inches off its precise landing point.
Not only must everything be set up exactly right, but Kirby follows a very precise breathing pattern once she’s in the cannon waiting for the cue from the ringmaster. “I set my body in a rigid plank position, with my torso hovering and only my feet and forearms touching the inside of the cannon. I tuck my arms in tight to my sides and clear my mind of any thoughts besides the task ahead of me,” Kirby said. Once the ringmaster gets to the number two in his countdown from five, “I hold my breath and clench every muscle in my body, in preparation for the 7 Gs I am about to experience.” The g’s refer to g-force, a measure of acceleration and describes the increased forces used by acrobats to stay conscious while hurtling through the air at such high speeds.
Every kid probably wishes they had the ability to fly, but being a human cannonball wasn’t always the plan. Kirby is something of a natural born performer. She made her stage debut at age eight in Ballet Minnesota’s The Nutcracker. By age 13, she was taking aerial and acrobatic classes at Circus Juventas, which also happens to be America’s largest youth circus school. Those classes solidified her decision to be a circus performer when she grew up, giving new meaning to running away to join the circus. Kirby pushed herself to graduate high school by age 16 and was on the road by age 17, performing around the country as a trapeze artist. Later, after years of building her reputation in the circus world, she was recruited by Ringling Brothers to be their human cannonball.
Kirby has a degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota, planning to become a psychologist. However, her varied interests and love of performing have led her down an unexpected, but exciting, path. She uses the skills she learned in math and science on a daily basis, particularly when preparing to be ejected from the cannon. Because of that, it’s important to her to encourage young girls to not only achieve their dreams, but also to stay interested in math, science, and athletics.
Kirby’s life is atypical for most twenty-somethings. She lives on a train, traveling from city to city, with more than 300 other circus folk, a group made up of people from 13 different countries. While she loves her job, she admits the constant travel can be grueling. “I love the nomadic lifestyle, but homesickness does creep up on me from time to time,” she said.
Surprisingly to her, Kirby has found that Judaism serves as a palliative to her homesickness and she tries to incorporate her heritage into her circus life as often as she can. Kirby enjoys cooking traditional Jewish holiday meals for her circus mates — last year gathering a group together to celebrate Passover and Hanukkah. Kirby believes keeping tradition alive while on tour is a way to connect to her roots and give thanks for where she came from.
With a nickname like “the Jet,” it’s obvious Kirby puts her whole self into her job with every single performance, but it stands to reason when your job is that stressful, there are bound to be times when you’re just not feeling up to it. Kirby tries to focus her energy outward during those moments, reminding herself there are young, impressionable girls watching her perform and aspiring to be like her someday. She believes she has a responsibility to bring her best self into the ring at every performance, no matter what.
“Just because I’m a performing artist doesn’t mean I don’t use math and science on a daily basis,” Kirby said. so it’s important to her to encourage young girls to not only achieve their dreams, but also to stay interested in math, science, and athletics. “Just because I’m a performing artist doesn’t mean I don’t use math and science on a daily basis,” Kirby said. “It is a huge honor for me, to be in a position to be a role model for girls, and to hopefully inspire them to work hard to achieve their goals.”
Unfortunately, Kirby can’t be a human cannonball forever. While there doesn’t seem to a be lifespan for a human cannonball, there are many factors playing a role in the longevity of their career. They must take the best care possible of their bodies, just as all other athletes do. Kirby performs an average of 14 shows per week and when she’s not performing, she’s training. “I dance, stretch, and strength train in order to stay healthy and strong,” she said. She also has to pay close attention to her diet, take vitamins, get plenty of sleep, and drink lots of water.
“I am not sure where my cannonball career will lead me, or how many years I will perform this particular act. I do, however, wish to continue working in the field of entertainment. I’m looking forward to the next adventure.”