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“Returning to the circus ring 14 years after my accident”

Silke Pan was an acrobat until she slipped during a trapeze number and broke her back. She is now on tour again in Europe

Her movements are elegant, her posture is graceful, her artistic expression is enchanting. When Silke Pan performs today and stays in handstand for several minutes, it’s almost a small miracle. The paraplegic never counted on returning to the circus ring or stage. Since she slipped during practice of one of her trapeze figures in 2007 and her partner Didier Dvorak was not able to catch her, the today 50-year-old from Western Switzerland uses a wheelchair.

She had therefore come to terms with the fact that she would not make her way back into the spotlight. “During rehab in Nottwil, I had to learn to accept this completely new body sensation”, Silke Pan remembers. She can’t feel anything any more from her belly button down, however, she kept trying to form trapeze figures in physiotherapy. “But it was impossible to turn my paralyzed pelvis.” Floor exercises, headstand, handstand – none of it worked.

Silke Pan therefore gave up her dreams. Her skills which she once acquired at the State Ballet School in Berlin and the Berlin School for Acrobatic Arts had vanished with this stroke of fate. A deep sadness engulfed her. “I thought, over and done. And I closed this chapter of my life with a heavy heart.” But now what? How should she earn a living from now on? How could she feel her body again?

“Although I have never dwelled in the past, being an acrobat again is like a huge gift to me.”

Silke Pan

Didier Dvorak carries Silke Pan on her back during a hike outdoors. Also along comes the dog.

Unrivalled team: Silke Pan and her husband Didier Dvorak have mastered all highs and lows together. (Photo credit: Blaise Kormann)

New perspectives in art and sports

The couple had to reorient themselves and look for a new task. Didier had worked as a balloon artist already before, Silke caught up with him later. Together the duo quickly established themselves as Canniballoon – creativity was one of their core skills as artists after all. Their workshop was in Aigle, VD, where new ideas for large balloon decorations were created, which they then set up in department stores, leisure parks and festival halls.

For a long time, she suffered for her paralyzed body, the sense of shame she felt about it. “Only sports helped me to feel good again.” Sore muscles from riding the hand bike instead of always only the chronic pain, spending time outside and in fresh air – this is how she regained a positive body experience.

Silke Pan poses with her hand bike, helmet and glasses.

Hand bike sport is how she got started. In the 2021 season, Silke becomes European Champion in road racing, European Vice Champion in time trial and wins a bronze medal during the World Championship.

Quickly the former acrobat became an excellent athlete. During races she gave her everything, fought for positions, lost sometimes, won often, trained hard. Her reward: 132 races on an international level. 121 times on the podium of which 80 were for gold. She broke the marathon world record time (2013 to 2015), crossed 80 passes in the Alpes (2016 to 2019), did 30 lake crossings in para triathlon modus (2019). When she became a citizen in 2018, the native German got to race for the Swiss National Team.

“Sports allowed me to better accept my disability.”

Silke Pan

COVID-19 changed the training

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. At first, races were postponed, then cancelled, trainings were skipped. “That’s when I set up a small fitness studio at home and tried out new shoulder exercises as recommended by the coach. Well, and that’s why she asked her husband Didier to help her get into a handstand. To facilitate this, he put her body on an old snowboard, fixed legs and hips with straps and pulled her upside down onto her hands.

Her first impression was marked by a certain heaviness. However, after only ten minutes, “it was as if my body and muscle memory kicked in and remembered the positions from the past”. Her hands and shoulders automatically took the correct positions to perform an acrobatic exercise. On her fourth try, strapped to the snowboard, she got into a handstand all by herself.

Silke Pan doing a handstand. Her legs are tied to a rod that rests on her neck.

The acrobat working hard on expression and grace of her performance.

“We were both crying for joy. Because we knew that this would open completely new opportunities for us.” Silke Pan tried other techniques, without the board, and instead tied her knees together with a rope in front of her chest. Bit by bit she became stronger due to the training – however, she was not satisfied with the aesthetic. Therefore, she tried to work with a rod which she put on her neck and to which she strapped her feet. Bullseye! “This looks great with stretched legs, although I am still working on making everything look more graceful.”

Inquiries for performances in the ring

On social media she posted pictures of her handstand exercises. And then happened what nobody would have expected: Circus Helvetia contacted and wanted to hire her – right in the middle of hand bike season which continued to be successful, although her mind and heart were already working under the Chapiteau. She accepted contracts for the Christmas season 2021 and the summer 2022.

Also, the Lausanne Circus School contacted the wheelchair acrobat. After her accident, Silke had given all her props away and the director now offered to return the old pedestal to her. “This was a really emotional moment, when I felt this table again under my hands for the first time.”

Aside from the training for her circus performance, Silke Pan continued to do hand bike races – one of her best seasons ever. In September, she announced her retirement from top-class sport. Only three months later, she returned to the circus ring for the first time after 14 years. As usual by her side: Didier, this time as assistant. The stage fright before the first performance was enormous. And one question is always on the acrobat’s mind: “I was just about to live my dream. However, I was scared that my number would not be a success but that I would only be pitied.” The standing ovation convinced her of the opposite.

Returning to the international circus family

From then on things started to happen fast. In September 2022, Silke Pan participated in an international festival for the first time – the Salieri Circus Award in Italy. She was invited as artist of honour and was immediately awarded four prizes. “Suddenly this made me become part of the international circus family again, it led to numerous inquiries and invitations to festivals….”. In her voice it is audible, how moving this comeback must be for her. Even though many things are different today from her first circus career.

Silke Pan is currently training in Spain with her new props. Starting October, she will be performing for Gravity Circus in Milan until the spring, will then, however, take a trip to Berlin to perform in the Christmas Circus Roncalli and after will start a new contract at PortAventura leisure park in Spain.

Silke, how do you find your way back to this enormous strength after all these highs and lows?

“I have stayed positive in all phases of my life”, she explains. And grateful for everything that was still doable and worked. Stories of fate of other people have helped her to better carry her own burden.

What’s important for herself in managing her body: training with the exoskeleton. It’s a kind of a walking robot which was developed by the Swiss Technical University in Lausanne. “I was the test pilot, so to speak, and that’s how my head has learned to perceive my body as a whole again.”

What has helped you believe in your strength and regain it?

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