What It’s Like to Be a Safety Diver in “O”

My dive students don’t look like other Open Water Diver hopefuls. For starters, they show up wearing sequins. And they never assemble their own gear.

That’s because my newbies are trapeze artists and other acrobatic performers working in O, the water-themed Cirque du Soleil show performed five nights a week in Las Vegas.

My goal isn’t to prepare the talent to dive in the ocean. In fact, some may never dive outside the 25-foot-deep pool where they work. The only requirement they must meet is to become comfortable in the water breathing from the regulator that I or one of the safety divers I oversee as head of aquatics supply. Together, it’s our responsibility to anticipate the performers’ movements in the pool, always having an air supply at the ready.

The first time you catch a trapeze artist underwater, you say to yourself that it’s really impressive. They’re coming in from 30 feet above the pool, which is flush with the stage. Then the artist is underwater, cocooned in a ball of bubbles. It’s hard to see them. First I need to get that regulator in their hand, then I have to move them.


Because timing is everything.

For this cue, called the trapeze bow, I have to swim the trapeze artist up quickly. While the trapeze artist is breathing from a regulator — one of five second-stage regulators that are part of what every safety diver wears — six synchronized swimmers are setting up for the next part. One swimmer will lie stiff, horizontally, like a log. The other five will swim that horizontal performer to the surface.

My goal is to move the trapeze artist so he or she is standing on the belly of that horizontal swimmer. If I’m late, then the team of synchronized swimmers can’t get the artist onto the platform, and that part of the show is scrapped.

Or, if I don’t hold a trapeze artist steady during this rise, the performer could fall off.
It’s a delicate maneuver to get them in the right position on time and not push them too far forward — and then get out of the way. Because as this is going on, five synchronized swimmers are egg-beating, and I don’t want to be kicked.

Once the trapeze artists are back on the platform, they bow, then sink back down into the water, and we swim them out of the pool.

It sounds complicated, but after 15 years with O, this — and every other part of the show — has become easy. I first started with Cirque du Soleil right after I graduated from college, in 2002, and had begun working as an instructor with Sport Chalet, which had opened a Las Vegas location. In the beginning, I was so overwhelmed. There is so much going on at any given moment, and I never thought I would remember it all.

Turns out, I did. And it has become routine.

Now, I’m the head of aquatics, overseeing a team of six divers. It’s my responsibility to make sure everyone else gets their tasks done. The show has four cue tracks, each with 20 cues. A cue is the trigger for when we need to act, to move, in order to carry out our responsibilities underwater for the performance.

My team of six divers rotates responsibilities for almost every show, because if one of us isn’t working a cue track for a week and then we come back to it, it’s hard. Someone might forget where the performers will be in the water or how they want to move.

When we clock in for our eight-hour shifts, we’re working in a 1.5 million-gallon pool, set to 88 degrees. The pool is 25 feet deep, but we don’t work in the bottom 8 feet; that space is reserved for the mechanics of the show, including seven hydraulic lifts. These can raise the bottom of the pool to be flush with the stage, which happens at certain points in the show, or each can be raised and lowered independently as needed.

For example, there’s a part of the show where high-dive performers leap from 60 feet in the air, plunging 17 feet into the pool. Just below the bottom of the pool, there are tables set up for the next act. The lifts are raised then so the high divers don’t accidentally upset the tables.

It’s simply one more part of the show that audiences would be surprised to see — that is, if they could see into the tank at all. But because the tank is beneath the stage, everything we do is behind the scenes.

Granted, there is a lighting tunnel that allows special guests of the show to witness some of what we do. There’s one part of the show in the beginning that tends to wow anyone who can see into the tank.

For the barge act, 14 divers are in the water, supporting a troupe of 15 to 20 artists who perform hand-balancing and other acrobatic tricks — the circus equivalent of cheer pyramids with bases and flyers. After most of the stunts, the artists catapult into the water, and my team supports them all, in one way or another. What helps make this possible is that we have 78 second-stage regs in the pool on a hookah system.

Each week, we perform 10 shows, with two a night Wednesday through Sunday. During the day, we train. Training is a must for new safety divers and new trapeze artists. Typically, most acrobatic performers haven’t spent much time in a pool. Training them is no different from certifying an open-water diver, so when we hire new safety divers, we’re looking for instructors who have a lot of certifying experience.

Training a new safety diver is pretty straightforward. They shadow a more experienced safety diver until they learn where in the pool to be for the simpler cues, and what they have to do.

It becomes rote for them too.

Occasionally, a wrench is thrown into our routine. Technical issues can happen. The hydraulic lifts can malfunction, although it’s incredibly rare. When it happens, we have to change the cue track on the fly.

This is accomplished in part thanks to an entire underwater communications system. Two communication divers, or comm divers, wear full-face masks, enabling them to talk with the stage manager, who calls the entire show. They’ll say things such as “clear right” when stage right is clear. One person overlooks the pool and communicates with the comm divers in the pool. Together, the team is able to talk and troubleshoot through these scenarios.

The shows in which we’ve had to overcome obstacles are the ones I’m proudest of. We always strive to give the audience the best possible performance, whatever the circumstances, and to see how everyone comes together and still creates magic despite a glitch is so inspiring.

And I’m glad. Because when we’re in the pool, we don’t hear the applause that the performers hear each night. Nor do we take a curtain call.

For me, it’s gratifying enough to be part of one of the best shows in Vegas, even if most people aren’t aware that we’re down there.

The biggest hurdle for a new trapeze artist is stamina — they tend to be winded after their act, so when they’re in the pool, they don’t quite have enough air in their lungs, or energy, to move toward a regulator. But once they get used to their act, they’re calmer in the water.

{ SOURCE: Alan Williams, SportDiver | https://goo.gl/CVdurs }