The Freedom to Fly

Stephanie Morphet-Tepp does a split on the ground in front of a wooden fence.

 

The Flying Brain stands in the wings and watches as the house lights dim. She hears her cue and steps into the ring. The spotlight illuminates her and, based on her sleek, form fitting outfit and the wire being lowered from the ceiling, the audience waits for an aerial act to begin. But there is something different in the air – a sensation that this will not be any ordinary trapeze act.

The story of Stephanie Marie Little Thunder Morphet-Tepp (Ph.D., ’19) and her ascent into the air begins on the ground with a crash. The joy she felt as a high school dropout who had risen to earning a graduate degree with her sights set on a doctorate at Colorado State University was overshadowed by the crunch of metal and the compression of her back bones. It took three years of physical therapy to get moving again and by that point her age and the accident precluded her from getting back into her beloved gymnastics. She needed an outlet.

“I was fortunate to find circus when I did,” Morphet-Tepp said. “I trained throughout my Ph.D. to stay sane and would be in the lab during the day and training at night.”

After earning her doctorate in cellular and molecular biology, with a focus in infectious diseases and microbiology, Morphet-Tepp entered the biotech industry. But it was a disillusioning experience for her, and after being involved in science for more than a decade, Morphet-Tepp swapped her lab coat for a leotard and began pursuing circus full time.

“I began as an aerialist and was practicing for a few years, and then I saw hair hanging in the Volta production of Cirque du Soleil,” Morphet-Tepp explained. “Being Native American and having super healthy hair my entire life, I knew that was my act.”

The Flying Brain hangs in the air and is supported by only the strength of her hair.
Morhpet-Tepp received a Guinness Book of World Record for holding 277 pounds with only the strength of her hair.

There was just one problem – hair hanging is a tightly held secret that is typically only taught to family members (there are only four hair hanging families in the world). Seeing a hair suspension act itself is a rare treat, so finding someone to teach Morphet-Tepp, a first-generation circus performer, the act seemed nearly impossible.

The wire dangles from the ceiling, glinting whenever it catches the spotlight, but the Flying Brain pays little attention to it as she expresses her story. Each arm raise has a purpose and each toe point is a metaphor. The Flying Brain looks left and right as if she is searching for something. She motions to the top of her head and for the first time the audience realizes her hair is knotted around a polished metal ring. The Flying Brain looks up and, with a big smile, acknowledges the wire. She reaches for the carabiner at the end, clips it to the ring, and is lifted into the air.

For three years Morphet-Tepp tried to find someone to teach her hair hanging. One day, in an act of serendipity, she received a call from a hair hanging troupe.

“They were looking for a third for their trio and everyone else was booked. I had spent so much time contacting people asking them to teach me that my name finally came up,” Morphet-Tepp said. “I sent some pictures of my hair and my scalp, and three days later I flew out and started training.”

Normally, it takes about a year to build the neck and upper-back strength necessary to perform hair hanging, but within 72 hours, Morphet-Tepp was performing three 12-minute acts a day.

“I guess I’m just a little bit different,” Morphet-Tepp said with a smile.

From there, Morphet-Tepp began living the circus life – hitting the road and performing her act for audiences around the country – and that’s when she picked up her stage name: The Flying Brain. In 2022, after an appearance on TBS’ Go Big Show, Morphet-Tepp got an idea.

“I met some folks on that show who had really obscure world records. I thought, I do something weird and can break a record,” she said.

On Nov. 10, 2022, after holding 277.121 pounds with no support other than her hair, Morphet-Tepp received the record for “the heaviest weight held while suspended from the hair” from the Guinness Book of World Records.

The music swells and a mixture of shock and awe flows through the audience as they realize there is no trick and no gimmick – the performer dancing above their heads is being held by nothing than more than the strength of her own hair. As the story unfolds, we see the strength and resilience of the Flying Brain brought to life through twirls, spins, dips, and dives. Each movement is precise, and every motion is perfectly accentuated.

Morphet-Tepp in a flowy, pink and white costume hangs from the air.
With long, healthy hair and a desire to fly, Morphet-Tepp knew hair hanging would one day become her act.

One month before setting the world record, Morphet-Tepp had a unique opportunity to combine her passion and her culture when she co-produced New York City’s first all Indigenous variety show with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. Morphet-Tepp had connected with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus during the pandemic when in-person performances were shuttered. The circus’ owner, Keith Nelson, held performances via Zoom during the height of the lockdowns and as things began to ease, would hold outdoor performances on the streets of New York City that helped performers get work and the audience get an escape. Nelson had an emphasis on putting on shows focused on different cultures, and asked Morphet-Tepp for help featuring Indigenous performers. She eagerly accepted the role and for three days in October Indigenous acts from reservations and communities around the country performed on the Wickquasgeck Trail, otherwise known as Broadway.

“It was such a powerful show and a powerful weekend,” Morphet-Tepp said. “To have a group of Natives being rowdy and enjoying our culture in Times Square felt like a turning point.”

Performers included Morphet-Tepp’s 76-year-old elder who sang in Lakota, hoop and round dances, a fashion show, traditional circus performances, rapper Nataannii Means (son of renowned activist, actor, and author, Russell Means), and, of course, Morphet-Tepp, who is Shawnee, hair hanging.

“It was a moment where we were able to speak our truth,” Morphet-Tepp added. “At one point, Nataannii turned to me and said, ‘my dad used to get beaten up and thrown in prison for this. Now, we’ve got the New York Police Department protecting us while we share our culture.’ Being able to be strong and proud in public was pure magic for all of us.”

Retelling the story of that weekend brought out more emotion for Morphet-Tepp as she described how her discovery of hair hanging felt more like fate than luck.

“[In Indigenous culture] our hair is the manifestation of our spirit. It holds our memories. There is an emphasis on taking care of it and having patience when you’re brushing it out and braiding it because you’re setting your intention for the day,” she explained. “People in my family were taken to boarding schools and had their hair forcefully cut. For me to grow my hair long and treasure it and literally use it to fly, I feel like that fits so well together. Being the world record holder based on the strength of my hair, it’s the strength of my people.”

There is no fear or hesitation as the Flying Brain continues to fly higher into the air. Even at 100-feet, she can still make eye contact with the audience and each gaze she catches is an opportunity to share in her euphoria. She shouts and laughs as she revels in the freedom of flying. The audience responds in kind, marveling at the magic of the human body and the strength of human hair.  

To learn about upcoming shows, classes and more from Morphet-Tepp and the Flying Brain, visit theflyingbrain.com.

Stephanie Morphet-Tepp and other performers from New York City's first all indigenous variety show pose in Times Square.
Morphet-Tepp sees hair hanging as the perfect complement to her Indigenous culture. She was able to proudly display both when she co-produced New York City’s first all Indigenous variety show.