After giving birth to her first child, a daughter, it didn’t take long for Virginia Tuells to return to work. She was back at the office within three months, boosting her 150-pound husband, Ihosvanys Perez, high above her head.
Tuells is a circus performer, and she’s built a career on literally lifting up Perez, who does handstands on Tuells’ shoulders and one-armed push-ups on her thighs.
“Women are strong, and we have the power to lift people up, not just emotionally but physically,” said the 38-year-old mother, who’s a year younger and 50 pounds lighter than her husband. “It started out as an act we thought could be a little different and weird, but it has turned into something really positive. It’s inspiring a lot of women who are able to see the potential of their strength.”
As part of the Big Apple Circus — opening at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center on Saturday, May 18 — Tuells and Perez perform a six-minute routine called Duo Fusion. It’s filled with acrobatic feats that see the couple climbing and balancing on top of one another in muscle-popping poses.
While Perez is responsible for some lifting in the act, Tuells serves as the primary base. “I really feel more comfortable and confident when I’m lifting him,” she said. “It’s more natural to me.”
And she does it all in 3-inch heels.
“I wanted to add character. When you see a tango couple, the shoes are so important to giving the right look, so I wanted to try to this in heels,” said Tuells. “Ihosvanys thought I was crazy — it puts the balance entirely on your toes and the ball of your foot — but we tried it, and I could do it.”
Originally from Argentina, Tuells attended circus school before moving to the States. Ihosvanys, also a graduate of circus school in his home country of Cuba, has practiced gymnastics since he was 6 years old. The two have taken tango lessons for fun, and the dance visibly influences their kinetic onstage routine.
The couple met in 2003, while performing in Mexico City. Tuells said the attraction was instant. They quickly kindled a relationship and married five years later. They endured plenty of long distance due to conflicting schedules before deciding to team up professionally in 2017, when they started touring together.
Tuells cites deep breathing and regular training as her sources of strength. Before giving birth to their daughter, Sofia, in early 2017, she did three-hour workouts. These days, however, her one-hour exercise routine doesn’t look all that far off from that of any active gym-goer — save perhaps the handstand push-ups.
“The first month back was really tough. Of course when you have a baby, you get soft, and of course you’re tired because you have a baby,” said Tuells, now sporting six-pack abs. “But you just have to stay disciplined. It’s more about staying consistent than putting hours and hours into working out.”
She relies primarily on body weight, working out different muscle groups with pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, push-ups (basic and handstand), V-sit ab lifts, hanging leg raises on the pull-up bar, and Superman back poses on the mat. Sometimes she’ll do a 20-minute jog on the treadmill.
“I focus a lot on my legs, glutes, lower back, and core — those are the essentials for the strength and balance I have to maintain,” Tuells said.
She and her husband try to adhere to a veggie- and protein-centric diet, snacking on granola bars, power bars, bananas, and smoothies in between meals. There are only two rules: No fast food, and no soda.
Ice cream is a near-nightly treat for Tuells, but you would never know it watching her hold a wheel pose — bending over backward, hands on the floor behind her head — as Perez presses into a handstand on her torso.
“Sometimes women will see the act, and I’ll hear them say, ‘Oh, I want to do that — I’m going to start a routine next Monday.’ It’s amazing to show people that we’re stronger than what we think,” Tuells said.
Just over 16 months old, little Sofia is soaking it all in, too, copying her mom as she sits through preshow warm-up sessions.
“She’ll touch her toes, put her head on the floor and almost try to do a handstand — I’m amazed how smart she is,” Tuells said.