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The Philadelphia Inquirer
PITTSBURGH — In May of this year, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shut its doors after 146 years of operation. At the same time, the practice of circus arts as exercise - incorporating trapeze, the lyra hoop, rope, or aerial silks — has never been more popular.
"Circus arts as an accessible form of workout probably didn't start popping up until the last few years," said Kelsey Keller, co-owner of Iron City Circus Arts, which opened about two weeks after Ringling Bros. closed. "It's something that they've seen in the movies or on TV but didn't realize it was available in their hometown."
Keller and her co-owner, Jenly Deiter, both had dance backgrounds as children, but fell in love with aerial arts as adults. They had been instructors at Fullbody Fitness in Brentwood, and bought the business when the owner was ready to sell. They eventually dropped some of that studio's other offerings, such as Zumba, to focus on the circus classes, which had taken off in popularity.
They both quit their day jobs — Deiter as a social worker and Keller, who has a doctorate in biophysics, in a lab — to run the business, rebranding it as Iron City Circus Arts. They moved into the space on the South Side, which has higher ceilings to allow for more dramatic plunges down ropes and aerial silks.
"A full-blown circus school has been a dream of ours and we're now living the dream," said Keller.
Several other schools and fitness studios in the Pittsburgh area offer circus and aerial classes as well, such as Pittsburgh Aerial Silks & Circus Arts and Verve 360 Downtown, which offers aerial yoga using the aerial silks.
Iron City Circus Arts offers everything from beginner Intro to Aerial Arts classes to advanced sessions for members of its performance troupe, Iron City Aerial, which has been hired to do jaw-dropping stunts at events ranging from an Earth Day celebration to a birthday party for Wiz Khalifa's mother.
A recent beginner class, which lasts an hour and 15 minutes and costs $25, involved a thorough stretching warm-up, followed by time on the trapeze, aerial silks, and rope. The studio also offers pole dancing, flexibility, handstand training, children's classes, and birthday parties.
Within minutes in the beginner class, I surpassed anything I'd ever done on a backyard swingset growing up. Palms sweating, I was able to hang upside down and then pull myself to standing, and then learn tricks such as the side star, stag forward and bird's nest.
For me, at least, the aerial silks and ropes were trickier. It was tough to get the hang of essentially tying knots with my toes and holding myself up in the air at the same time.
It was doubly impressive, then, to watch the advanced aerial silks class that followed my beginner session. Half a dozen students climbed the silks as nimbly as spiders, then turned upside and plunged downward, doing acrobatics along the way.
One of those students, 13-year-old Abby Richert of Bethel Park, started learning aerial silks about a year ago after she tried it at a friend's birthday party at Fullbody Fitness.
Circus classes "are my favorite thing to do," she said. "I think of it as just having fun, just flying."
She dreams of someday performing with Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian acrobatic circus, which, unlike the clowns and animal acts at circuses such as Ringling Bros., is the inspiration for many of the modern circus arts classes.
Not everyone needs to be an insanely flexible 13-year-old or a former dancer to enjoy circus arts classes — anyone at any fitness level can try it.
"We definitely have a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, but also youth and teenagers and older adults," said Keller. "The kind of people who come in are just people who are interested in trying something new."
"That's what makes it really fun for us," added Dieter. "For most of our students, we're giving them their first aerial acrobatic experience."
As for the fitness benefits, circus classes enhance flexibility, but also build serious strength. "You are lifting your own weight around," said Keller. "It feels more like playing than working out, but you are getting a full body workout."
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