When she was 12, Catie Brier found herself entranced by the Cirque de Soleil
performers she saw on TV, twisting and contorting their fantastically costumed bodies with grace and ease.
At BB's, everyone begins on the trapeze; it's the equivalent of that weed-out-the-weak math class in college, where students find out if this is for them or not.
Beth Brier says experience in gymnastics, Pilates and dance comes in handy when you're airborne.
"The dance training really does enhance the aerial, because the kids really understand where their bodies are," she says. "So when they get upside down in the air, they remember where their arms and legs are."
Tampa aerial yoga teacher Francine Messano says the biggest hurdle for her beginner students is just getting the hang of it – literally.
Her "swing yoga" classes at Yoga Downtown Tampa allow yogis to practice poses while suspended from the ceiling in a fabric hammock.
"People come into the swing class, and they think they're strong, and they get on there and look at me like they're perplexed," Messano says. "If you can get past the awkwardness, you keep going."
Joining a circus arts or aerial fitness class might increase your repertoire of cool party tricks, but it also has some real health benefits. Besides the obvious muscles the classes work, hard-to-define measures of fitness, such as perception and proprioception, also can improve with practice.
Aerialist workouts help performers understand their body's capabilities and its limits. They also
help a person control the direction of the body's movement through the use of sense and direction identity, helping to decrease common injuries such as ankle sprains.
"If you do yoga, or the aerial arts, they're going to make you strong and hit a lot of the areas the gym doesn't hit," Messano says.
Haley Mackenzie, 9, thinks her circus arts training at BB's will prepare her for a lifetime of health.
"It's gonna help me, like, if I ever want to go to the gym," Haley says. "It's going to be easier for me than anybody else, because I've done this throughout my life."
Now 22, Catie is a professional contortionist in San Francisco. That one videotaped performance changed her life – and her family's dance studio – forever.
After watching their daughter in action – stretching her body and her limits – Catie's parents, Beth Brier and Marcello Spiga, decided to bring circus arts training to Clearwater. There, ballerinas and tap dancers practice next to trapeze artists and aerialists at BB's Circus Arts and Dance.
The circus arts may have more flash and glitter than traditional dance, but there's no clowning around with the fitness it offers, they say.
"Have you ever seen a fat aerialist?" Beth Brier asks. "It's all upper-body, core and flexibility."
The studio offers a range of circus apparatus to learn on, including the trapeze, aerial hoop, aerial silk and a suspended rope with a wrist hook called the Spanish Web.
And BB's isn't alone in Central Florida. Several aerial arts classes are being offered locally, from flying trapeze classes in Sarasota to aerial yoga in Tampa and Lakeland.
Call it the democratization of the circus. For generations, circus training was kept within performing families. But much of that has changed since the creation of the contemporary circus format in the 1970s. The focus on narrative, theatrics and imagery – seen in shows such as Cirque de Soleil – helped create a demand for circus arts training without having to go to the midway.
Aerial activities require strength, flexibility, stamina and balance. Practitioners often use much of their muscles' range of motion doing repetitive moves.
"You're working out everything, not just one muscle over and over again, you're using extreme strength and you're using flexibility," Catie Brier says. "I think stretching is so good for your body. You don't have to be a contortionist to do it."
Circus arts classes; BB's Dance & Circus Arts of Tampa Bay, Clearwater, www.bbsdancefactory.com
Swing core, swing yoga classes; Yoga Downtown Tampa, www.yogadowntowntampa.com
Flying trapeze classes; Tito Gaona's Flying Trapeze Academy and Flying Fantasy Circus, Sarasota, www.titogaona.com
Aerial yoga workshops; Satya Life Yoga, Lakeland, www.satyalife.com
Aerial silks, hoops, yoga and more; Orlando Aerial Arts, www.orlandoaerialarts.com