Are you finding it hard to gear up for another session of push-ups and burpees? What about swinging on a trapeze and climbing aerial silks instead?
You don’t have to actually join the circus to get as fit as an acrobat—circus schools are coming to you. Through their classes, you can achieve physical feats you never thought you would and gain strength, stamina, balance and flexibility while having the time of your life.
A real surprise: You don’t have to already be in great shape to take and enjoy circus fitness classes, said Carrie Heller, founder of the Circus Arts Institute in Atlanta, one of the dozens of circus schools in cities across the country. You will need to ultimately lift your body weight during class, but at first there are many moves you can do in circus fitness classes if you’re not at that point. And teachers will work with you and help you advance.
Many students who, for example, struggle to climb the soft rope called a Spanish web on their first day of class find they can do it after just a few weeks…and progress like that is very satisfying.
Beginner classes include an introduction to foundational skills and positions low in the air and sometimes, depending on the school, may include ground based skills such as low-wire (low tightwire) walking, other balancing skills, and yes, trapeze. Know that there are also many forms of trapeze, including the static trapeze and the flying trapeze, which are completely different skillsets and are often not even taught at the same circus schools, explained Rachel Stegman, owner of Circus School of Arizona in Scottsdale, in part because the flying trapeze apparatus requires a much larger space.
Beginning students might also learn and practice juggling, which is fantastic for fitness and fantastic fun.
Most circus fitness students take class once or twice a week, and for best progress, it’s important to also get cardiovascular exercise outside of class. Brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling will help you excel at circus fitness by making you stronger and building your endurance.
One of the goals as you progress is to be able to climb higher and higher heights—literally—but that doesn’t rule out people who are afraid of heights. In fact, fear is actually a good thing when it comes to circus fitness because a respect for heights is important, said Rachel Stegman. You’ll start on the ground and advance to low heights and then higher once you know the techniques and have the strength and confidence—all on your own schedule.
Also, going high isn’t always the goal. A move done low to the ground confers as much fitness as the same move done higher, Stegman says.
In addition to basic circus fitness, some schools offer aerial fitness classes or aerial conditioning classes, in which students climb and do tricks on one or two pieces of hanging fabric, and aerial yoga classes, in which you’ll execute stretching-focused yoga poses while hanging in a hammock, an especially good way to experience a wide range of motion that you can’t always get on the ground.
COST AND GEAR
The cost of circus fitness classes varies widely by school and region of the country. On average, expect to pay between $20 and $30 for each one-hour class.. Some schools offer punch cards with five or 10 classes for a lower per-class cost. Circus schools don’t tend to require that you commit to a certain number of sessions.
Being able to pay per class means you can take one or two classes to see if you like it without making a financial commitment. But try to give yourself at least a few weeks, the time it takes to see improvement in strength and fitness.
Suggested attire is form-fitting clothes—think leggings and a top that clings or can be tucked in because you’ll be going upside down. Avoid wearing clothes with Velcro, zippers, buttons or sequins (save that for prime time!), any jewelry and anything with laces because they could damage or become entangled in the equipment, creating a safety hazard.
HOW TO STAY SAFE
If you’re sold on finding a circus fitness class, there’s one more thing to keep in mind: your safety. As you look for a school or studio near you, ask these questions…
Is the school a member of the American Circus Educators Association and have they participated in its Circus Arts Safety Network program? Member schools must meet safety practice standards and standards of quality of instruction and training of their staff, and also follow safe rigging practices for their equipment, Carrie Heller said. You can find a member directory at http://www.americancircuseducators.org/directory/
Are the instructors highly skilled in the circus? For aerial acrobatic training, someone with only a yoga, dance or gymnastics background won’t have the technical skills of someone with circus training, Stegman said. She suggests looking for instructors who have many years of circus and acrobatic training. (If a teenager is leading a class, that’s an automatic red flag.)
Are there spotters? This is an important safety measure, especially for beginners. A spotter’s job is to direct a student in and out of moves correctly, help her learn to problem solve should she make a wrong turn and make sure her head and neck are protected at all times. Heller has one spotter for every person in the air.
There’s one final caveat, often suggested before starting any new fitness program, but very appropriate here: Check with your doctor first. If you have a condition that precludes putting your body weight on a joint, for instance, or being upside down, circus fitness isn’t for you. But once you have your doctor’s thumbs up and you’re game, swing by a circus school or studio.