Darla Davis knows from personal experience what it’s like to perform in the circus.
When Davis was 19 years old, she left everything she knew to travel to Houston and join the circus. Determined to learn aerial arts, Davis found a one-ring circus owned by a seven-generation Mexican circus family, Chimera, and performed there for two years.
Her time at the circus was just the beginning of her life as a performer. Davis also performed for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and later for Ke$ha, MTV and Cindy Lauper.
Most recently, Davis was the main aerialist featured in BYU Vocal Point’s popular “Greatest Showman” music video.
After moving to Utah to be closer to family, Davis found a way to use her talents for good: teaching children and teens aerial arts.
Davis never intended to teach. She moved to Utah to be close to family, but both adults and children started knocking on the door of her personal training space asking for classes.
“I was just kind of focusing on adults because that’s who was coming in my door,” Davis said. “Then, these cute kids starting coming and it became really obvious: I’m supposed to work with these kids.”
The space, initially meant for personal training, is now home to about 300 aerial arts students. Based in Midvale, Utah, Aeris Aerial Arts is one of the largest youth circus organizations in the country, according to Davis.
“These kids were struggling with fitting in and feeling accepted, and they weren’t dancers, and they were getting injured in gymnastics, and they didn’t have a home,” Davis said.
Hannah Brown, a 15-year-old from Lehi, Utah is one of those kids. Her parents met doing gymnastics, making it a family affair, and she practiced the sport until she broke two of her vertebrae.
“I was broken inside because I was like, ‘This is my life. This is my childhood. How am I supposed to transition from something I’ve been doing for so long to nothing?'” Brown said.
A friend introduced Brown to Davis, and Brown quickly grew to love aerial arts. Brown said Davis helped her learn to take care of her body and her back. Brown is one of several students Davis brought to perform on set for the Vocal Point music video.
Brown said Davis helped her find a passion through something she never expected.
MaKayla Finlinson, a 19-year-old aerial student, also performed in the Vocal Point video.
“It was such a cool experience and I got to meet so many people,” Finlinson said.
Finlinson said she has found a home at the studio.
“I love this studio because it’s a family here,” Finlinson said. “It’s different than other dance studios I’ve been to because there’s no competition. It’s really supportive.”
Ainsley Davies, a 14-year-old student, said Davis has helped her be more confident. Davies said she used to struggle speaking up in school, but Davis has helped her have the confidence to do so.
“Darla is the most confident person you will ever meet,” Davies said. “Just truly, truly confident.”
Davis said the girls she teaches are like her daughters, and her relationship with them is extremely important to her.
“I have so much love for them,” Davis said. “I feel like a responsibility and a feeling of just so much love for these kids.”
Her love for working with children led Davis to cofound a nonprofit organization called 90&9 that focuses on using circus arts and music to empower teens and prevent suicide. She has run 90&9 since 2017 along with her boyfriend, Nik Day, youth music manager for the LDS Church.
“With that project in my life, I will always put other people first,” Davis said. “My talents will always be used for a greater good, and it will never just be for self-glorification — it will be for the benefit of other people.”
Together, Davis and Day visit halfway homes, rehab centers, foster care facilities and treatment centers offering free workshops on circus art, music and songwriting.
The name for 90&9 was inspired by Matthew 18:12, when Jesus Christ teaches about leaving 99 sheep to go after the one who goes astray.
“Everyone’s going through something,” Davis said. “Everyone has something that they’re working through, and I think the important thing is to remember that healing can come when you just start pointing your arrows outward, and you start helping other people.”
Davis said the most rewarding part of 90&9 is reading the letters teens write after taking her classes.
“Their letters are so sweet,” Davis said. “For that hour, they felt like a human. For that hour, they felt like they weren’t a project. They had worth. It’s incredible.”
Davis said the letters tell her that what she’s doing is working.
Some students graduate from the halfway houses and continue taking classes from Davis, but she said refuge is the primary purpose of the project.
“It’s not to say that all these people are going to grow up and be professional dancers and acrobats,” Davis said. “But it’s something that they can fill those voids with rather than with drugs, alcohol, cutting and bad things.”
In addition to offering free workshops, 90&9 is also producing a Cirque du Soleil-style show with acrobats, dancers and live music written by Day. The show will take place in May.
“It’s kind of the journey of what it feels like to be in the head of someone that’s experiencing depression and anxiety,” Davis said. “We create a safe place to talk about it.”
The show, “Fighter,” focuses on preventing teen suicide and helping teens who struggle with mental illness.
“The message of the show is that we find peace and healing and cope when we turn our arrows from pointing inside to pointing outside ourselves,” Davis said. “Even though our life is hard, we can still reach out and lift somebody else up, and that, in turn, lifts us back up.”
Co-founder, Darla Davis, tells her story, and talks about why she started 90&9. If you are interested in donating or volunteering, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a direct message.
Posted by 90&9 on Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Some have already heard the music from “Fighter” during the audition process, and it has already received positive feedback. Davis spoke about one young girl who had attempted suicide and deeply connected with the music from the show.
“It’s validating the people that never get validated,” Davis said.
“Fighter” will take place live at East High School in Salt Lake City on May 12.
Until then, Davis will continue to empower teens from all backgrounds and experiences. Her students said Davis is an example of a fighter herself.
“She’s such a great influence just because I’m really shy and I tend to come into myself when I’m doing stuff, especially like this, but she’s helped me not to do that, and just to be more outgoing,” Davies said. “She’s a very good influence, and she’s a very strong person.”