Under the big top | December 4, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - December 4, 2013

Under the big top

'Circus Arts' classes have kids flying high for fun

by Emma Marsano

You've probably never been as impressed with yourself as a 7-year-old girl hanging upside down from a set of aerial silks.

The girl in question is taking one of the new Circus Arts classes offered at Menlo Park's Arrillaga Family Gymnastics Center. The classes, which are unlike others that have been held at the center in the past, provide anyone age 7 or older the opportunity to learn how to perform on the trapeze, the aerial rope and the aerial silks.

When people hear the word "circus," they tend to think either of costumed elephants or of incredible feats of artistic daring, like those performed by the well-known troupe Cirque du Soleil. The courses now offered in Menlo Park can best be described as an introduction to the latter.

Two levels of instruction are currently offered. The first, "Introduction to Aerial," doesn't require any previous gymnastics experience, and familiarizes participants with the basic grips and holds that form the foundation of trapeze, aerial rope and aerial silks.

In contrast, the "Intermediate Aerial Rope" and "Intermediate Silk" courses both focus on one specific discipline, and build toward the mastery of more difficult techniques.

The circus arts students at the gymnastics center stand out even before they begin practicing on the black trapeze, the knotted rope, and the billowing, cardinal-red silks anchored to the ceiling. Rather than the minimalist leotards of gymnasts, the students don long leggings and long sleeves to avoid friction burns from the equipment.

But the differences between gymnastics and the circus arts don't end there. The circus arts blend art and sport. Athleticism is essential, in that performers must be incredibly fit. But they live up to the title of "art" in that they offer complete creative freedom: there's no rulebook for the circus arts, and no clear definition of the right or wrong way to do things.

"In that way, it's really different from gymnastics," noted Katherine Turkle, circus program coordinator and lead aerial acrobatics instructor. "With aerial, the only really wrong way is an unsafe way."

This lack of rigid structure allows performers to make their routines completely their own, but also makes it hard for a casual participant to visualize a future in the circus arts.

Where can the circus arts take you? "For me, it's a hobby," Ms. Turkle said. In winter 2012, she said, "I was in search of a new training space for my aerial rope. I approached (Gymnastics Center Director Pearce Wagner) with my request to train at the gym and he upped the ante by suggesting we begin an entire program to teach this unique circus acrobatic specialty."

Ms. Turkle was fortunate enough to turn her love of the circus arts into an occupation, but it's not possible for everyone. But even dabbling casually comes with benefits.

"It's an amazing way to stay in shape, because you don't miss anything," she explained.

The strenuous positions that performers must learn require total-body conditioning. From smaller muscles in the fingers and toes to larger groups like the abdominals and back muscles, every part of the body has to be prepared to allow a performer to stay in control while suspended in the air without a harness.

With that in mind, the introductory classes start with the basics, helping students to build muscle and increase flexibility, by just hanging from the apparatus. The next step, Ms. Turkle said, is to complete an inversion — that is, to reach the point of being able to put one's hips and feet above one's head, and to hang upside down. Reaching this milestone, however, is much more difficult than it sounds.

The circus arts are similar to ballet in that you have to "work very hard to make it look effortless," Ms. Turkle said.

Ms. Turkle herself took ballet classes as a child, and began yoga and rock climbing as she got older. During college, she worked in a rock climbing gym, and one day accompanied a friend to a circus arts class on a whim.

Given her experience with dance, she was immediately hooked.

"I liked the artistic element of the aerial rope, which I wasn't getting from just rock climbing," she said.

She found that she was thinking more creatively again while learning to perform aerial routines. "To me, aerials are all about shape. The shapes you can make with your body and the apparatus, and with your partner's body if you have a partner."

But the artistic side of the circus arts isn't limited to the physical act of performing a routine, Ms. Turkle said. A performer will often choose music to accompany a routine, and might even perform alongside musicians.

In addition, the fabric of the aerial silks comes in a wide variety of colors, and can be coordinated with a performer's costume for visual contrast.

Since classes started in early September, the circus arts program has filled up. The fall session currently boasts about 40 enrolled participants, divided into three age groups, from bubbly 7-year-olds to mellower older students.

The mother of one second-grader stressed that her daughter loved the individuality of the circus arts, because she wasn't very interested in team sports.

"We've tried other sports, but this has been the one she's been super excited about," she said.

She also noted that her daughter enjoyed doing something that none of her friends had tried or even heard of.

The same mom expressed her happiness with instructor Moni Santini-Kelly. "The teacher is amazing! Absolutely amazing. And you can tell the kids really look up to her."

A student from one of the adult classes echoed this sentiment. "I signed up because the class sounded absurd and interesting," he recalled. " I was surprised to find that many of the aerial techniques are similar to rock climbing self-rescue and high angle rescue protocols."

Like Ms. Turkle, he found that the circus arts aren't as mysterious and exotic as they initially sound, and happily incorporated the classes into his weekly routine.

Signups for the winter session of Circus Arts classes begin on Dec. 9. Fees can range from $200 to $700 a session. Go to tinyurl.com/MP-circusarts to register or find out more.


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