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Collette Ellis Bends Flames, Dances in the Sky and Swims Like a Fish 


Eating fire is easier than swimming with a giant fish tail.

Just ask Collette Ellis, an aerialist and firebender who recently added mermaid to her list of unconventional talents.

She was in the deep end of a pool not long ago, making one final attempt to glide though the water — arms by her sides, propelled by the majestic tail — as gracefully as any other self-respecting sea nymph.Only she hadn't yet mastered the graceful part.

Ellis, who says she's more comfortable hanging 30 feet above a crowd by her ankles than anywhere underwater, was ready to cry Neptune when. . .

"Look Mommy! A mermaid!"

A group of children had gathered at the pool's edge and were pulling on their bemused mom's sweater, pointing at the lady in the water. Ellis had been discovered — and she had to deliver.

"I couldn't take the tail off in front of the children and ruin their dream of seeing a mermaid," she says. "And that's when I actually started to get good at being a mermaid. I don't know if it was their wanting it so badly and me wanting to do well for them, but I started swimming so much better after they arrived."

Creative Loafing recently sat down for a chat with this Charlotte artist who approaches everything she does with the faith of a child and courage of a soldier — and who never fails to set a room on fire.

click to enlarge Collette Ellis plays with fire. - ANDREW DOLAN
  • Andrew Dolan
  • Collette Ellis plays with fire.

Creative Loafing: Was fire the gateway to the other forms of ambient performance art that you do?

Ellis: Fire definitely took me deeper into the [performance] community, and gave me the courage to try things I wouldn't have tried otherwise. I would have never gotten on aerial stilts; I would have never done any aerial acrobatics, had I not started with fire. That's just me, because that was my bigger fear. So now, having conquered that fear, I can proceed forward and nothing seems as frightening.

What did you do before you started putting your life in jeopardy for the sake of art?

I took a lot of dance classes — not gymnastics or anything, but ballet, jazz, tap, the whole nine yards. So that led to me wanting to do more styles of dance, which led into fire, which led into everything else.

So would you say that working with fire is more the hub, and the other things — the mermaid and aerial acts — revolve around that?

It's definitely been a hub. Generally, I like to be considered a performance artist, because that doesn't limit me to one particular field. I enjoy making and sewing costumes. I like to create characters — be it a mermaid, a fire spirit, or a butterfly in the sky. Whatever the character is, I like to make spaces more interesting with my presence.

What do these kinds of performance bring to your life?

I've definitely made a lot of friends, and it puts me in a community that helps me to believe in myself and manifest my dreams — no matter how outrageous the dream might be.

This whole new mermaid venture happened from a conversation I had with a friend who makes headdresses. She was going to a mermaid's convention and I said, "Man, I've always wanted to be a mermaid. That would be so cool. I can't believe people do that. That's a real job for some people?" We left it at that, and later, she sent my husband home from one of his gigs with a mermaid tail. It was like, (laughs) "OK, gauntlet thrown!"

Was self-conquest — the opportunity to confront fears and break through them — an aspect of these arts that attracted you to them?

It was more like curiosity. I think maybe, on a subliminal level, [conquering fear] may have had something to do with it, but that wasn't at the forefront of my mind. It was more the curiosity and the "What if?" and "I wonder if I can do that?" factors. Whenever I would see something that would inspire me, it was the question, "If they can do that, I wonder if I can do that? Why not? Let's see."

Is there a misconception about your profession that you want to clear up?

It would be the idea that you have to be predisposed to this to actually be any good at it, and that it's not open to anyone who wants it. I did not grow up taking any special classes that would have led me down this path. It was through simply wanting to do it and putting in the time and effort. If I've made it possible, that means anybody could make it possible, no matter how outlandish it might seem. A lot of times, people think that fire is this little community that's never going to share, but really, all you have to do is ask — and not be afraid.

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