Flying High

Story by Matthew St. Amand
Photography by Cesar Sosa and Renee Choi Photography

There was nothing conventional about Amherstburg’s James Heugh’s entrance into acrobatics ten years ago, and the success he has achieved since then. His first passion was mixed martial arts (MMA), but a severe neck injury left James unable to do one very important thing all MMA fighters need to do. “I couldn’t get hit anymore,” James explains, “and taking head blows is a pretty integral part of MMA fighting!”

After recovering from his injury, James regrouped and started a business as a personal trainer, using a space at Maximum Training Centre. At the same time, the gymnastic group Sky Society trained there too. At one point, James was asked to “spot” one of the gymnasts.

“I can give it my best shot,” James told them. A girl lost her balance during her routine and James caught her. Everyone around him said: “Hey, you’re good at this!”

James performs the Back Bend Counterbalance with Stephanie Ottomanelli. Photo by Renee Choi Photography.

It’s a testament to James’ resilience and work ethic that he moved onto performing with the exciting acro group Positive Impact Movement (PIM). Their gravity-defying routines and feats of strength gained global notice with appearances on The Ellen Show and America’s Got Talent.

“The group still performs together,” James says. “We now do an annual festival called ‘The Positive Impact Movement.’ Instead of watching us perform, the audience can participate. We use a space called the Las Vegas Circus Center and several hundred people come. They get to learn how to do stuff. They get to find community, make friendships. They feel empowered when they find out how much their bodies can do.” 

When he isn’t uniting the world with acrobatics, James performs five nights a week in Voltaire’s Belle de Nuit show at the Venetian Resort. 

“Nathan and I—from PIM—we perform at a show with Kylie Minogue and Christina Aguilera,” James says. 

In December, James was in the Las Vegas Circus Center, talking to some fellow performers, and one of them asked if he had availability for a Sunday.

“Uh… that depends…” he remembers saying.

“Well, we need one more person for the Super Bowl,” one of the guys said. 

“‘I’m your guy!’” James recalls saying. “I heard that and suddenly my heart rate spiked to a hundred eighty beats a minute!” he says with a laugh. “So, I had to put together a video showing that I could do what they wanted me to do.”

He continues: “When I was home visiting at Christmas time, I got a text message from a phone number I didn’t recognize. It read: ‘I need your costume measurements.’ I wrote back: ‘Hi person I don’t know! Why do you need my costume measurements?’ The mystery person replied: ‘I can’t say. It’s an NDA [non-disclosure agreement].’ And I responded: ‘OK, does this thing you can’t talk about happen in February?’ And they texted: ‘Yes.’ I sent them my costume measurements within twenty-four hours. That’s how I got the confirmation that I was going to be on it.”

Rehearsals for the Super Bowl halftime show began two and a half weeks before the event. They were held at a convention center.

“The initial rehearsals were very intense,” James says. “We were sectioned off in groups—pole girls, acrobats, roller skaters—before we were tied into the show. Rehearsals lasted eight hours. Acrobatics has a point of diminishing returns as your body gets tired, but the adrenalin kept me going.” 

Following these intense rehearsals, James performed in Voltaire’s Belle de Nuit each night.

“I was going from nine a.m. to one a.m., surviving on caffeine and Ibuprofen,” he says. 

A week before the Super Bowl, rehearsals moved to the stadium.

James balances Cesar Sosa above his head while performing the Hand to Hand. Photo by Cesar Sosa.

“There were spacing issues,” James says. “More and more people were brought in daily, like pieces of the puzzle added to a big picture: a hundred-person marching band, two to three hundred extras to look like an audience at a concert. Then celebrities came in. Everyone was friendly. I was walking by a guy, one day, and fist bumped him and somebody with me said: ‘You just fist bumped Lil Jon!’ There was just so many people around.”

And then it was Super Bowl Sunday.

“For me, one of the best tools I have when stepping into these spaces is the ability to rehearse the whole event in my mind a thousand times,” James says. “Before I arrive, I have been there a thousand times in my mind.”

He goes on: “In the stadium getting ready to perform, there is seven minutes between the first half ending and the start of the halftime show—that is not much time to move a mass amount of equipment onstage, to make sure all of the performers are in place, their in-ears are online, that
all the extras are where they need to be. Then a countdown began in our in-ears. At the fifteen-second mark we heard: ‘ARE YOU READY?’ The lights dimmed and I felt like a pot ready to boil over, felt this electricity on my skin while everyone in the audience was going crazy. Then the music began, I picked up my partner, started in my statue pose, and thought: ‘Here we go!’” 

The adrenalin was pumping so powerfully in that moment, James knew he risked launching his partner when he propelled him through the air during the show’s opening. 

“In that adrenalized state,” James says, “you could launch your partner further than you intend to. There was a joke among the background performers: ‘Don’t be the reason the Super Bowl got ruined if your person lands on Usher!’”

Years of fine-tuned training paid off in the crisis moment, and James’ partner did not land on Usher.

Reflecting on the experience, James says: “One of the most special things to feel in the moment is to acknowledge: ‘I’ll never be here again,” so to feel every single second, sensation, feels remarkable knowing it’s never going to happen again. I live a life where I pursue these moments every day. It’s been one of the most wild rides!”

James is looking forward to the Positive Impact Movement Festival at the Las Vegas Circus Centre April 12 through 14:

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