At circus arts studios like New Haven’s Air Temple Arts or Polefly Aerial Fitness, you won’t find sword swallowing or fire breathing, carnival lights, or big yellow tents.
Juggling, trapeze, lyra, clowning, Chinese pole and hand balancing are no longer the sole domain of circus performers. The circus arts, once a spectacle, are now a popular, increasingly accessible form of fitness.
Since opening in January 2013, Air Temple Arts, New Haven’s first aerial dance and circus studio center has had to move locations twice in need of more space to hold class and training hours. They opened with only 19 students and a few classes a week. Now, the studio trains more than 115 students in its current session with eight different instructors. Classes, held in the evenings, cover hand balancing, Chinese pole, dance techniques, contortion, kid’s circus, partnering, and cirque fitness.
At the Air Temple studio on State Street, you won’t find a tent or a box of clown wigs, but floors covered in thick mats, colorful nylon material (known as “silks” in the industry) hanging from the ceiling ropes and various trapeze apparatuses. Polefly Fitness, in Wooster Square, also offers lyra classes, hanging rings from the ceiling of a dance studio.
Stacey Kigner, founder of Air Temple, said that the studio’s students come from all different backgrounds — they are stay-at-home moms, kids who are good at somersaults, undergrads, mid-life bankers, psychologists.
All of them use circus as a different sort of outlet: “Some want to do a pull-up. Some want to learn the art and get an act together.” Stacey says. Air Temple aims to introduce the idea of using physicality to interact creatively with the world in each of their classes. People who train to perform benefit from growing popularity of circus as well: “The circus-fitness movement gives people a greater appreciation of what we do,” said Sam Gurwitt ’18.
On a chilly Thursday evening in February, I go to Polefly Fitness to try a class on the lyra — a hoop, suspended from the ceiling, that is used for acrobatics. The class was small with only two other students. No one looked particularly comfortable — we were all new to the practice, but I was the only one who had never tried circus before. The lyra itself isn’t anything spectacular — a metal circle wrapped in purple athletic tape dangling a few feet off the ground. I clasp my hands around its rim. Thumbs on one side, fingers on the other, wrapped tightly. Keep your grip firm and nothing bad can happen. I press my feet into the mat, reminding myself that it’s not going anywhere. Lifting my feet up towards the ring, my head drops towards the ground as I lock my elbows in place. I’m swinging upside down now, pressing my feet into the ring — thumbs on one side, fingers on the other.
Thirty seconds later, my palms ache. Without my feet on the ground, the smallest movement swings the ring. Shifting around and trying to hoist myself up, my only goal is not to fall. Eventually I extend my legs to one side and balance with one hand. By the end of the class, I can barely hang upside down for thirty seconds before folding under the pain of my own body weight.
I leave the studio realizing just how much I can’t do. Circus is an extreme understanding of your body and its limitations. It causes you to know and remember the boundaries of your balance, strength, flexibility, and endurance, and then it asks you to push those boundaries. It pretends they don’t exist.