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Meet Isaac Hou, the acrobat who defies gravity
The acrobatic dynamo explains how he remains a master at his craft
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You may have seen fire eaters, unicycle riders and jugglers do some pretty impressive things, but odds are you've never seen anything quite like Isaac Hou's acrobatic act. Hou, who's known as "Lord of the Ring," performs gravity-defying moves using a giant metal wheel, flipping, spinning and swiveling like a human coin.
Hou grew up in New Jersey with a software engineer father and database manager mother and took time to travel the world by himself after high school. He came across hoop performing by accident and honed his skills on city streets across Europe and Asia. An appearance on "China's Got Talent" earned him worldwide fame.
These days, Hou performs both on stage and on the streets, gaining audiences around the world.
Chase talked to Hou about how he avoids smashing his fingers, working as a lab rat, why performing is like hitchhiking—and how he stays on top as a master at his craft.
Chase: You left home for Europe after high school. Why travel instead of going to college?
Hou: I wanted to experience other ways of living. As a teenager I had issues with authority. I knew I could go to school and get a well paying job, but I was convinced I wouldn't find that life satisfying. I was the kid who thought the grass was always greener on the other side. For me, that meant the other side of the ocean.
Chase: How did you learn about street performing?
Hou: I had a job cleaning a youth hostel in London. One of the guests was a fire performer. I became her assistant—carrying her bag and pouring her fuel. She allowed me to tag along to clubs. At 18, partying, drinking and meeting girls were top priorities. Spinning some stuff on fire seemed like a great idea to keep the party going. And it paid a lot better than cleaning hostels.
Chase: How did you learn to perform?
Hou: I did kung fu and gymnastics when I was younger. A lot I just cobbled together. I went to circus school in my 20s, and I sought out teachers who could teach me specific skills.
Chase: What were the early shows like?
Hou: I did fire shows. Once a woman accused me of being a devil worshipper because she thought I had other worldly powers over the fire. One day I'll go back and clean it up—or rebuild it from scratch, incorporating all the things I've learned since then.
Chase: You've said you supported yourself doing odd jobs while performing on the road. What's the most unusual job you've ever done?
Hou: I was a pharmaceutical lab rat, testing drugs for 100 pounds a day in a hospital. This was for Stage 1 drug trials, where they test new compounds for the first time on humans.
Chase: How did you come across the giant metal Cyr wheel?
Hou: In 2003, I saw a video recording of Daniel Cyr, the inventor of the wheel, doing a festival. I googled "man big wheel big hula hoop," but never found anything. A few years later, I ran into my friend who knew the name of the prop, and the dimensions of prop to body size.
Chase: How did you learn the skills to use it?
Hou: It's not easy to learn, but neither is it terribly difficult. It's hard to find a good place to train. The floor can be a problem. Often it's too slippery, too slanted, too bumpy or a combination of all these.
Chase: When you are hanging onto the wheel, how do you roll full circle without smashing your fingers?
Hou: I open my hands. Much like you shut your eyes when an object is coming directly at you, your hands will protect themselves instinctively. Initially, when doing upside down movements, your hand wants to leave the wheel to protect itself. You need to teach yourself to open your fingers, but leave your palm in place, so you can still control the wheel, and your body.
Chase: What are some specific things people can do to master acrobatic skills?
Hou: Spend time on basic movements or concepts. A good foundation is key to all abilities. Find a good teacher. This can be problem—how to identify a good teacher if you don't know anything about what you're trying to learn. It's a problem I often deal with myself.
Chase: What makes your favorite places to perform good for you?
Hou: A good floor, and the audience close enough that I can see the sclera (the white part of the eye). There is a trade off between using a spot that you're familiar with, and a new one. The old spot you understand the surface, but the audience is likely to be familiar with you. If I go to a new spot, in a new town, the audience is like fresh, unpicked fields. The technical quality of the routine is probably poor, but the energy is likely to be much better.
Chase: The moves you do are so difficult, how do you handle it when things go wrong?
Hou: Sometimes you fall down or get hurt—I've had 13 stitches on my face above my eye. I get up and keep going. If the floor is bad, you have a choice between doing a safe but boring show, or taking the risk of falling down. You make the show safe by making small moves, but to be powerful, movement needs to be expansive. So safety comes at the cost of mediocrity.
Chase: How do you build your audience?
Hou:It's like building a crowd in the street. You need to convince people walking by to stop and that it's worth their time. I've learned to listen to the audience, to feel the audience, to slowly give them what they enjoy. People like it when you look at them and connect with them.
I'm terrible at marketing. I'm not on social media. I try to do great work and let other people do my talking for me. It's kind of old-fashioned, but I like to surprise people.
Chase: What's the difference between street performing and stage performing?
Hou: I think of performance like an attempt to light a fire— the audience brings the fuel supply and the performer brings the spark. Sometimes the audience is like damp wood. Other times it's an explosion. Larger audiences mean more fuel, but it's harder to get a good thorough burn.
Chase: Where would you like to be in ten years? What's next for you?
Hou: I don't have any particular fantasy. At some point I would like to get back on the road and live out of a backpack again. I'd like to get the feeling, the confidence, that comes with knowing you can live and thrive with essentially nothing.
Deirdre van Dyk is a Chase News contributing writer and editor. She has covered business, innovation, education and science for Time Magazine. She lives in Washington.