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Exercise in full swing

Rocky Mountain News (CO)
October 17, 2006
Author: Lisa Marshall, Special to the News

It's 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday in Colorado's fitness mecca, and the hard bodies are out in force. Packs of Lycra-clad cyclists are crowding the shoulder on U.S. 36, svelte marathoners are circling the reservoir and the fitness center parking lots are filling up fast.

But beneath the fluorescent lights in a large studio at the Dairy Center for the Arts, Lisa Wood, a 41-year-old Smoky Hill High School teacher, is opting for a more obscure route toward those rock-hard abs and sculpted biceps.

She's hanging upside-down by her knees, five feet off the ground, preparing to pull herself up into a sitting position on her flying trapeze.


"You're building muscle and you're not even thinking about it," says Wood, red-faced but smiling widely as she slowly rises into a standing position atop the hovering trapeze bar, her two spotters close by.


"And it's not an isolated activity, which so much exercise is. You depend on each other."


Wood is among 18 students in Frequent Flyers Productions' beginning aerial dance class, a five-week course open to anyone 10 and older who possesses a willingness to be physically humbled and a dream of learning to fly.


The class is one of roughly a dozen in the Denver/Boulder area that invite mere mortals to partake in the circus and aerial arts that many presume can only be marveled at from a seat in the audience at a Cirque du Soleil show.


Instructors say aerial arts classes provide an excellent way to improve not only arm strength but also core strength, balance and spinal flexibility.


Across town at the Boulder Circus Center, a 3,000-square-foot school and training facility founded in 2004, workaday folks roll in from their jobs on Tuesday evenings to take a beginner class in "aerial fabric," airborne acrobatics performed while partially wrapped in a 30-foot-long swath of cloth hanging from the ceiling.

On Monday and Friday afternoons, schoolchildren work up a sweat practicing hand balancing, Chinese pole, circus acrobatics and various high-flying feats. For those looking for something completely different, there are occasional classes in contortionism and tight-wire walking.


In Evergreen, circus artist and gymnastics coach Monnya Silver recently began offering beginning aerial fabric classes for adults and children at Evergreen Recreation Center. And in Westminster, an informal club called the Imperial Flyers gets together several times a week to swing and soar on the trapeze.

"It's becoming much more mainstream," says Cathy Gauch, who has performed aerial arts for more than 18 years and now teaches at the Boulder Circus Center. Gauch credits Cirque du Soleil with shifting the public perception of "circus arts" from one of "death-defying feats" and distasteful sideshows to one of impressive human athleticism and artistry.


As aerial arts in particular have begun to show up more in music videos, films and dance productions, audience members have been tempted to try it.


"Everyone kind of has that desire to fly," says Gauch.


To reach out to even more of those people, Frequent Flyers Productions, an 18-year-old aerial dance company, recently launched a new Wings of Steel class, designed for rank beginners wanting to improve their core strength via exercises on the low-flying trapeze and other aerial apparatus.


"To do a pull-up on a chin-up bar is one thing, but doing a pull-up to get yourself off the ground and flying is really inspirational," says Catherine Bedell, 41, who will co-teach the class. "It doesn't feel like a fitness class."

Bedell, who runs an educational nonprofit, says she was 15 pounds overweight, didn't exercise at all and had "zero" flexibility when, five years ago, she looked skyward at an aerial dance performance and saw her road to fitness before her.


"It was strength, grace, beauty and flexibility, but it was all different ages and body types," says Bedell. She joined a class within a week.


"With cycling and running and all those little groups and clubs you could do, that seemed really intimidating to me. This was something that not everyone was doing, so I felt comfortable going in as a beginner."

Unlike a gym setting, where weight machines often use unnatural motions to target specific muscles, students in aerial classes use their own body weight for resistance.


To ensure safety, exercises are initially kept low to the ground, and class-members help spot each other.


But make no mistake, Cirque du Soleil makes it look easy.


The mere act of pulling one's feet off the floor, slipping them up and over a trapeze bar and hanging upside-down by the knees works micro-muscles in the arms and trunk that the circuit workout at the gym misses. One attempt to climb a 30-foot-length of aerial fabric can leave a newcomer's biceps and triceps burning and conjure unpleasant childhood memories of that rope in the grade-school gym.


On the plus side, there's nothing quite like a long, upside-down stretch from the bar of a trapeze.


"Just the blood to the head and letting your skull hang free really opens up the vertebrae," says Darden Longenecker, a Web-site designer and aerial dancer who co-founded the Wings of Steel class. Slowly overcoming an often-innate fear of heights also can do wonders for a person's self-esteem, instructors say.


And then there's the fun factor.


During a recent low-flying trapeze class at the Dairy Center, a diverse group of college students, grade-school kids, dancers, businessmen and women all formed two lines to practice what seemed to be the most joyful exercise of the day.


With one hand clutching the trapeze bar and the other outstretched to the side, each new aerialist took a turn running gazelle-like in wide, playful circles, feet lifting off the ground every few steps.

Flight at last.


And they said it was too late to run off and join the circus.

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