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Defying the laws of gravity while chasing the Cirque du Soleil dream

In this Arts and Culture feature we chat with young Guelph acrobatic and dancer Shaunaughsey Meagher about living her dream of running away with the circus

World champion acro-dancer Shaunaughsey Meagher started Grade 7 at a new school this year and the classes are very different from what she was used to at St Ignatius.

“Monday, we do circus then school and then Tuesday it is school then circus and it keeps flipping,” she said. “So, it’s half a day of circus training and half a day of academics.”

Shaunaughsey is one of only four Grade 7 students chosen from around the world this year to attend Ecole Nationale de Cirque in Montreal.

“It is the theatre school for Cirque de Soleil where they train circus performers such as acrobats and trapeze and they have a program for high school all the way up to college,” said Shaunaughsey’s mother Sarah Meagher. “That was the joke we made, that our 11-year-old actually ran away to join the circus.”

Joining Cirque de Soleil has been Shaunaughsey’s dream since she was a pre-schooler.

“When I was four, I went and saw a Cirque show and somebody was on the rope and I said I want to do that,” she said. “And I still want to do it.”

What better vocation could there be for a whirlwind of motion whose feet rarely appear to touch the ground?

“She has never applied the rules of gravity,” said Sarah. “She has always been upside down, this one.”

Shaunaughsey is the oldest of two children born to Wayne and Sarah Meagher of Guelph. Her younger brother, Jackson, is four years old.

“She was born at Sick Kids at Mac two months premature,” said Sarah. “She was supposed to be a Valentine’s baby but she was a Christmas baby so, a little bit of a surprise.”

The surprises didn’t end there.

“She was incredibly flexible from birth,” said Sarah. “She was cartwheeling before she walked pretty much. My husband and I would be like, oh my gosh. Where did this kid come from?”

A simple trip to the store was an opportunity to perform her gravity defying feats.

“I would do handstands in the grocery store and walk on my hands in the aisles,” said Shaunaughsey. “I don’t like talking. I like performing. It’s really fun.”

Her early audiences were often people waiting in line to fill a prescription.

“She would dance in Shoppers Drug Mart for anybody that would watch,” said Sarah. “It was pretty obvious at an early age that Shaunaughsey was a performer and an acrobat, a gymnast and a dancer. She loved to put on a show for everybody.”

As soon as she was old enough, they enrolled her in gymnastics and when she turned seven, she began training and competing at Guelph Saultos Gymnastics.

“She started baby gymnastics at eight months and pre-competitive training at three,” said Sarah. “Saultos provided some pretty amazing conditioning, determination and hard work.”

When she was two years old, she started dance classes at the Performance Dance Academy in Guelph.

“She’s had amazing teachers there who have supported her and loved her and trained her and have just been incredible people,” said Sarah. “We are very PDA proud.”

The combination of dance and gymnastics skills have allowed Shaunaughsey to compete and win in a number of local, national and international competitions.

“In 2017 she was the provincial gold medalist on floor and silver medalist on beam for gymnastics,” said Sarah. “She competed on Team Canada in Poland last year as the jazz and contemporary soloist and in Portugal this summer for World Performers Canada where she won gold for her acro-duet and silver for her acro-solo.”

A collection of her most recent awards and trophies are displayed on a large shelf in the family home and the rest are stored in the basement.

“She’s had some good years and she works hard,” said Sarah. “She is very dedicated, and it is wonderful that she got chosen to go to Ecole Nationale de Cirque.”

There are only 28 kids in The Ecole Nationale de Cirque high school program and only 12 new students were accepted this year.

“They are a select group of kids from around the world,” said Sarah. “She had to audition and go through a physical exam where they tested flexibility then she had a four-hour written exam on academic subjects.”

Shaunaughsey was selected for her specific skills and talent.

“The people they kept all do something different,” said her father Wayne Meagher. “She is the dancer acrobatic person and there are jugglers, and clowns. They didn’t keep anybody that was exactly the same.”

Shaunaughsey lives in residence on the school campus in Montreal.

“We have a bunch of dorm rooms and I am with another person,” she said. ”There is a snack room a movie room and then our dorm room. So, we have a lot of fun when we get home from circus.”

She misses her friends and family in Guelph but it’s a sacrifice she has accepted to follow her dream.

“She flew home by herself for the first time as an unaccompanied minor for Thanksgiving, but mommy and daddy are taking turns driving to Montreal most weekends,” said Sarah. “It’s a long haul but she needs us to come for the weekend.”

Shaunaughsey made sure she got around to visit her friends and teachers at the Performance Dance Academy before she flew back to Montreal.

“The dream is to work for Cirque de Soleil when she is older and perform for them,” said Wayne. “The competitions she has done, the only reason she did them was to get to where she is now. So, it seems like things are working out.”