Longer ago than I care to admit, I ran away with the circus. I joined the grounds crew at Cirque du Soleil, blissfully spending my days stringing nets and scraping old bits of masking tape off the stage floor. On one magical afternoon, I stood with the entire workforce in a huge circle. We each looped a length of rope around our waists, and when the signal was given, we all pulled our ropes tight, backed up slowly, and raised the big top.
Things don't get much better than this, I thought at the time. But then the trapeze artists came out to practice, and I found myself gazing in awe at their precise, daring moves. Scrubbing the floorboards, I never got close to the trapeze. But I have to admit that a secret little dream has lingered: Me, flying through the air with the greatest of ease.
Well, I recently got off the ground in a new fitness class called Circus Sports. And for anyone who harbors a similar romantic notion, I'm here to report that it's never too late to try a few circus moves -- as long as you're willing to make a clown of yourself.
Circus Sports is part of a trend of novelty fitness classes, geared toward people who are tired of step aerobics, Pilates, and cardio-kick workouts, as well as those who harbor a secret lust for the flying trapeze. "Daring, arduous, sexy, exotic," purrs the literature from fitness chain Crunch Fitness. Plus, the brochure promises, there are solid benefits to be had: For starters, "the abdominals of an acrobat, the triceps of a gymnast, and the lats of a trapeze artist."
Joining the Act
In the very hip Crunch facility in San Francisco one Saturday morning, our circus instructors, Lisa and Teresa, greeted five of us with bouncing enthusiasm. They handed us each a couple of bright red balls. The first trick to learn in Circus Sports is juggling.
We began with one ball, tossing it from one hand to the other, and when we had that down, we progressed to two balls. "Throw them in a nice arch, but don't even bother trying to catch them," said Teresa, demonstrating. I tossed a couple. The juggling balls, squishy and weighted, made a satisfying thud when they hit the floor. "Terrific," said Teresa. I deftly dropped a few more. "Great," said Lisa. Hey, I thought, circus class is a breeze!
We moved on to stretching and warm-ups, and then Lisa demonstrated how to do a headstand, making a triangle of our two hands and head and then lifting ourselves into the "frog" position, upside down, knees resting on elbows. If you think it's a little hard to picture, it's also a little hard to do if you are, say, a few decades out of practice.
Teetering in the frog position, we all attempted to stretch our feet and lower bodies straight up toward the ceiling. Some of us made it, some of us didn't. Those who did went on to handstands.
The two teachers popped about like little springs, cheerfully encouraging us to defy gravity. They made everything look easy, of course, and their enthusiasm was contagious.
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.
Come One, Come All
Perhaps one of the best things about programs like the Circus Sports class at Crunch fitness is that little slogan they print on their literature: "No judgment." If anything, they err in the other direction, encouraging novices like me so warmly and so supportively that we might threaten to come back.
At the end of class, a fellow student who was a veteran of a couple of classes said he'd been in Las Vegas recently and had gone to see the trapeze artists at Cirque du Soleil. "What they were doing wasn't that hard," said Michael Leone, an accountant in real life. "Now that I've been here, I can see it's really just a question of putting the moves together."
Is that so? Well, maybe next time. . . .
Editor's note: Crunch no longer offers Circus Sports at their San Francisco location. Check out www.crunch.com to find out if Circus Sports is offered at a location near you.