MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Aerial arts are compelling to watch and often hard to turn away from. Now, a north Minneapolis woman is using the circus skill to strengthen young women’s bodies and minds.

Nastaaja Johnson is clearly a woman of strength, though it’s been quite a climb to get to where she is now.

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“We moved a lot. When I did my college application, I had to put down about 16 schools from first grade through 12th grade,” she said. “We would move because of financial reasons, sometimes we would move because of my mom’s relationship situations.”

She says, amid all of the cross-country moves, her mother encouraged her to explore and create, and she maintained an A average. She says she never thought she would ever go on to obtain a Master’s degree. But she did, while traveling the world, developing her intellect and creativity.

Eight years ago, she stumbled upon a new interest — aerial arts.

“I like to learn. I’m kind of a nerd, so it’s a great way to incorporate my artsy side with my learning side and then also getting the benefit of physical activity,” she said.

She turned her back yard into a giant training ground, as she and friends take circus arts to the streets of North Minneapolis.

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Nastaaja Johnson (credit: CBS)

As it turns out Johnson is helping to unravel a whole other set of lessons, using an act of physical strength to built mental strength.

“Just that notion that you can do something that a couple of weeks ago you didn’t know that you could. It helps a lot, for adults minds but especially for youth,” Johnson said.

“Its very impactful, looking at them and seeing them. It’s like, ‘Dang, I could do it too,'” Nalah Fearce said. “They usually tell people, especially young Black girls, that they can’t do much. So somebody saying you can do that helps a lot, helps push us forward.”

That’s exactly what Johnson is doing, pushing girls forward and lifting them up.

She hopes to expand her aerial arts programs to more children’s groups. In the meantime her group — the Black Circus Crew — will be performing Oct. 22 at Can Can Wonderland in St. Paul at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door. Click here for more information.

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Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield