Circus fitness goes beyond the big top


Tara Ogren, a trapeze artist with Ringling Brothers circus, performs on a lyra at Verizon Center. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)
Vicky Hallett
Fit editor, Express April 9, 2013

Through April 21, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will present “Dragons” at the Patriot Center. Then the warriors who leap through spinning wheels of blades and fire, the horseback riders who form human pyramids and the acrobats who dangle precariously out of globes suspended high above the stage will head to West Virginia.

But even though that circus will be gone, it seems circus fitness is here to stay. Ever since Trapeze School New York opened a Washington branch in 2009, people who’ve never tried anything in a big top other than sit down have been giving various acts a whirl. And they’re getting buff.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express. View Archive

“There’s strong and then there’s circus strong,” says Shanti Sethi, 41, a surface warfare officer in the Navy whose weekly regimen involves flying trapeze, partner balancing and aerial conditioning at TSNY-DC. “Circus is the majority of what I do to stay in shape, and I’m definitely in better shape than I’ve been in my entire life.”

The off-the-wall workouts have also become a common form of cross-training for folks who believe in the power of body-weight exercises, says Brian McVicker, owner and manager of TSNY-DC. That’s probably why circus-inspired fitness classes — incorporating static trapeze, silks, partner balancing and other acrobatic apparatuses — are popping up at gyms and studios across town.

You can add partner balancing to your poses in AcroYoga, offered regularly at Yoga District on 14th Street. Or you can work with a silk hammock at Crunch Gym’s AntiGravity Yoga Wings classes. (“It becomes addictive to flip around,” says instructor Kellee Charles, noting that dangling helps decompress the spine and get you deeper into postures.)


Tara Ogren, a trapeze artist with Ringling Brothers circus, gives fitness tips to Washington Post reporter Vicky Hallett. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

Interested in silks? Track down TSNY-DC instructor Robin Berry. When she isn’t climbing and twirling around flowing pieces of fabric, she’s teaching classes across the area. At Urban Evolution in Alexandria, her students are mostly parkour guys obsessed with tricks. At Falls Church’s Forever Dancing, she trains women who appreciate the artistic side of silks — and want an upper body workout. At DivaFit in Herndon, she gets pole dancers looking for another acrobatic outlet.

Or you can clown around with Gregory May, who opened the Center Ring Circus School in Columbia in December. May once traveled with Ringling Bros., specializing in falling (comically) off a 12-foot ladder. Now he’s building up a serious following with his aerial arts and fitness classes for adults.

“You’re so focused on trying to do these tricks that you don’t realize how many pull-ups you’ve done,” May says.

The growing popularity makes sense to 28-year-old Tara Ogren, who’s made a career out of running off with the circus. While “The Greatest Show on Earth” was visiting Verizon Center last month, the performer invited me to join her for a workout on a hanging hoop called a lyra. She’s in trapeze acts for this particular show, but lyra and silks are still part of her conditioning routine, along with running, stretching and handstands.

“Even people not in the aerial acts do it to stay in shape,” Ogren explained before demonstrating how she gracefully maneuvers her body around the hoop.

My first trick was just going a few feet up and hanging by my knees. Sounds simple enough, but gripping that bar — especially when you’re terrified of falling off — forces you to really work your hamstrings. Taking one leg off is even tougher, although that’s really more of a stretch than a strengthening move for Ogren.

We played around with a few more poses, eventually going into some exercises you could also do with a pull-up bar, such as sit-ups from a knee hang (which I could do) and hanging leg raises (which I could not).

What appeals to Ogren about these movements is that they work everything: “It’s not just strength, but also flexibility and balance. You’re learning how to stay tight, which takes muscle control. And there’s no impact.”

That last part means aerial fitness is accessible at any age. Debra O’Reagan, 52, took her first class with Berry in 2009. Although she says she’ll never be able to do the kinds of gymnastics she did as a kid, O’Reagan gets the same rush of adrenaline from silks. And as a Pilates instructor, she appreciates what these workouts can do for her body.

Over the past few years, O’Reagan has trained with Berry and taken classes with Arachne Aerial Arts at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier while racking up several yoga certifications. The result is Flyfit Aerial Yoga, which she’s launching next week at Level Fitness in Cabin John.

“It could be good for so many people,” says O’Reagan, whose program ranges from restorative poses to more athletic moves similar to what folks do with TRX suspension trainers.

At one of Berry’s advanced classes at DivaFit last month, every student in the room was a fitness instructor. “This is more challenging to them because they’re used to doing basic things in the gym,” Berry said as I watched several women grab fabric and start spinning above my head.

Personal trainer Martina Oertling, 43, appreciates that she can’t zone out when the only things keeping her up are her concentration and muscles. “Usually, we’re anchored somewhere. Here we’re moving 360 degrees,” she said.

Although circus classes often attract exercise junkies looking to stretch their skills, May has also found that aerials are welcoming to people who haven’t found a foothold in fitness yet. Even students without the strength to lift themselves completely off the ground can play with sinking some of their weight into their arms, or using the silks as a sling to flip upside down.

People who keep at it eventually get rewarded with tricks, which is more motivating than a certain number of reps — and a lot more fun to post on Facebook, May says.

But maybe leave the spinning wheels of blades and fire for the professionals.

@postmisfits on Twitter

Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.

Also at washingtonpost.com Read past columns by Hallett and Lenny Bernstein and subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter to get health news e-mailed to you every Wednesday.

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