Circus without running away from home (Guest Post from Renee)

image2This weekend I spent an hour hanging upside down from a steel hoop (covered in hockey tape for ‘padding’) while simultaneously trying to pull my foot behind my head. On Tuesday I practised climbing up two pieces of stretchy fabric and wrapped it with my body to make human-fabric pretzel combinations.

It took several years to work up the courage to take my first aerial class, but once I did it quickly became a major passion in my life.

Aerial is a type of acrobatics performed from a hanging apparatus. These pictures illustrated aerial hoop and aerial silks – which has been my main source of body movement for the past 5 years. Over that time I’ve increased my fitness, become part of an incredible community and learned to do some pretty neat looking tricks often while hanging upside down. All without the need to run away from home.

Aerial is just one kind of circus training discipline. One of my favourite things about circus training is the diversity of options ranging from gymnastics type floor work like acrobatics and handstands, to manipulation disciplines like juggling, clown (of course) plus many new ones emerging all the time.

It’s the diversity of circus that has kept me interested for so long. When I get bored, injured* or am travelling and can’t get into the studio I work on something else. Most circus disciplines take a lot of practice to become skilled at so I’ve learned to make peace with being a beginner in lots of things. I love aerial and have developed a decent skill set in hoop and silks, but I’m also proud to be a beginner juggler, cyr wheeler and unicyclist.

So when I wanted to develop better flexibility I turned to contortion. Initially, I just worked on assuming the standard flexibility positions like pushing up into bridge, sitting in splits, pancake (straddle sit with chest/belly to floor) or whatever position I wanted to work on and tried to relax into the stretch (yeah right). After injuring myself doing splits last year I bought a few contortion books and videos to improve my training. What I’ve learned from them has been very surprising. Adult flexibility training is mostly about building strength!


Take back bending for example. I already knew that that developing core strength is a critical factor for overall fitness. And so I’ve done planks, mountain climbers, sit ups, V-ups, straddle ups and more planks. When I started contortion training, I realized that all of that work I’ve been doing has made me strong in contraction, but that as soon as my core muscles stretched out long they quickly lost all their power. The same thing happened with my legs and hips. Attempting to move my legs around in extension without the contraction power of quads and glutes felt like a puzzle just trying to figure out which muscles to use at all. This has become a weird source of frustration and enjoyment as I discover muscles in my own body that I’d swear weren’t there before.

My other favourite thing about circus is that it is an artistic practice rather than competitive. Beginner skills done with artistry and technique can be much more interesting to watch than the most dangerous high level skills executed poorly. I’m counting on this aspect to keep me going as I get older. There are limits to what my body can do when it comes to doing difficult tricks, but I can always improve how I do the skills within my capability. Professionals combine all three but there is also a world of recreational circus students out there ready to welcome anyone wanting to give it a try. We all start somewhere, so if you’ve been thinking about trying one of the circus disciplines I strongly recommend that you find a studio/school/club and give it a whirl.

Side note on injury and danger: I’ve been injured many times, but never from falling. Bruises and overuse injuries are common, but falling in aerial is not. Because many circus disciplines (aerial and acro especially) involve height and inverting it is important to learn under the supervision of a qualified instructor. Good teachers care deeply about student safety. Learning skills low to the ground with safety mats and proper progressions are critical. The good news is that under these conditions, falling is something I’ve never seen happen at the beginner level.

Renee Frigault is a professional engineer and recreational aerialist. She works and trains in Toronto, ON.

8 thoughts on “Circus without running away from home (Guest Post from Renee)

  1. I would love to try aerial silks at some point. It looks so graceful and fun!

    1. Be prepared for the reality that the fun comes quickly, but the graceful part usually takes awhile! Lots of grunting, tangles and strength building at the beginning.

      1. Haha, since I’m also on the more clumsy side of things that would be a given for me! 😀

  2. Aerial silks is so fun and challenging. The injury that sidelined my interest was in my shoulder. I grabbed for the silk midway through the second rotation of an aerial drop. But totally my fault. I switched to aerial yoga, which has fewer “tricks”, but as you say, feels artistic and graceful. Enjoy the new exploration!

    1. I had similar issues with silks. I’ve found that aerial hoop can also be a little less challenging to the shoulders. Alternatively, I started doing handstands as a way to counter strengthen my shoulders so I could get back on the silks.

    1. I’ve definitely found that fear and nerves creep in more than I remember from training in my 20s. Your grip strength especially with take time to develop, but it gets there! Building strength (grip and core especially) has helped a lot with my physical confidence which in turn has helped with the nerves. I now trust my hands to hang on if something doesn’t go exactly the way I planned.

      1. Yeah I’ve been doing a lot of strength training to back up my aerial training. I think it’s helping. X I’ve only started back in July after four years off. And it’s frustrating at times as I know how to do so much more than my body is currently capable of.

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