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The Greatest Workout on Earth

The Allure of the Big Top

And for many people, that spirit is the reason they've come to Circus Sports: for a bit of adventure. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), if you're in the fitness doldrums and tweaking your routine isn't enough, try taking a bigger leap. "Everyone in the fitness industry is looking for ways to make the experience fun," says Dixie Stanforth, MS, an exercise physiologist at the University of Texas at Austin and an ACE spokeswoman. "More and more of the things you did on the playground 20 years ago are being incorporated into classes -- kicking your legs, jumping, real-life movements."

As for circus-oriented routines, says Stanforth, "The specific benefits are muscular strength, endurance, power, balance, and coordination. Depending on the level of the workout, there's also cardiovascular fitness."

The hour-long class is hard work -- I felt muscles I hadn't used in years -- but it's also low key, noncompetitive, and fun. The instructors, who are real circus performers themselves, are very careful to keep you from hurting yourself.

Taking to the Trapeze

Following our frog poses, we did somersaults on the padded surfaces, and then cartwheels. Everybody clapped and cheered, even when we fell backward on our butts or went flying sideways and crumpled on the mats. Some of us in the class seemed like naturals. Some of us, well, didn't.

But the instructors were just so darn nice that it was hard to feel like a fool, even as they were helping a bit more than they should have had to, getting me up on the trapeze, for instance. With help -- and help, I am humbled to say, consisted of a hefty push from below by one of the young instructors, to boost me onto the bar -- there I was, five feet above the ground.

"Oh, you're doing great," said Teresa. "Nice pointed toes. Are you a dancer?"

"Are you kidding?" I asked, hanging on for dear life, my center of balance badly skewed toward my butt.

"No, really, you are doing just great. Now, lean back, pull your body up, arch . . . "

I managed some sort of pose for a split second, slipped back down, unfolded myself in a most ungainly way, and -- just like one of the juggling balls -- thudded onto the mat.

"Terrific," shouted the instructors. A smattering of applause greeted my landing.

But they couldn't fool me. Flying through the air with the greatest of ease was out of the question.

Oh, I can imagine the moves all right. When I watch my 4-year-old daughter on the monkey bars, I can still remember that great sensation of swinging hand over hand, hanging upside down by the knees. But unlike riding a bicycle, I'm sad to report, monkey-bar skills don't come back so easily.

Before I knew it, it was time for the class finale: forming a human pyramid, just like those cheerleaders on television. We learned how to stand in a good, solid squat and help someone else stand on us. We learned to climb onto a couple of classmates ourselves and jump down lightly and elegantly. And then we all did it, piling on top of each other and shouting "TA DA" at the mirror, while instructor Lisa did the splits -- effortlessly, of course -- in front of us.

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