Beyond the Big Top 

The East Bay is home to a thriving circus arts scene that provides exercise, community-building, and a unique form of creative expression.

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In 1984, members of the Pickle Family Circus established the Circus Center San Francisco in an old church in Potrero Hill, originally intended as its training grounds. But the center soon became the preeminent circus-training destination on the West Coast, and its cachet grew in 1990, when master instructor Lu Yi came on board to create the most comprehensive Chinese acrobatics program ever attempted in the United States.   Though the Pickle Family Circus closed, the Circus Center San Francisco is widely credited with setting the foundation for the growth of the Bay Area circus scene. The Bay Area's early circus pioneers probably never anticipated how expansive the scene would become.   


In the years following the establishment of the Circus Center San Francisco, training centers multiplied. Circus performers, eager to supplement their income and share their passion, branched out and began offering instruction. The recession played a key role in the growth of training centers as well. A depressed real estate market meant that new circus centers were able to snatch up the large open spaces they needed for rock-bottom prices. The industrial spaces of the East Bay were prime targets for conversion into training centers.

The Bay Area has long valued freedom of expression, innovating in new forms like improvisational dance and contact improv. Once facilities became available, circus represented a new avenue to explore, complete with highly skilled instructors. Dancers looking for creative ways to move suddenly found opportunities in acrobatics and aerial arts. Actors looking to broaden their range discovered the ancient art of clowning.

"What's helping circus grow is that the things that were already prominent in the Bay Area can merge really well with circus arts," said Rain Anya, co-creator of The Paper Doll Militia aerial troupe and an aerial instructor. "Not just circus arts [are] growing, but growing in conjunction with exercise, creativity, and movement."

"When I came to circus, I was looking for a place to find a new kind of movement, a way to train with less barriers," said Emma Close, an eighteen-year-old student at Kinetic Arts Center. "Here, I've found new ways to move, to express myself, to grow."

While the old circus was a novelty spectator sport with only a small number of practitioners, the new training centers springing up across the Bay Area did everything possible to make the tent as big as possible — for dancers, moms, and circus pros alike. For one thing, prices are reasonable. A ten-class package at the Kinetic Arts Center costs just $130. Drop-in classes are $16 each.

In addition, fostering a sense of community has been built into the mission of places like Kinetic Arts Center and Athletic Playground since their inception. "Over and over again, we get people who will walk in and say, 'It feels good, it feels friendly,'" said Kinetic Art Center's Hollander. "My experience is that if I walk into a place that didn't feel friendly, I'd feel like it's a waste of money. When it comes to community-building, it's ... about trying to get an environment that feels nice — everything from having color in the building to providing some sort of personalization when someone walks through the door."    

Circus also offers a more social way to keep in shape. Learning trapeze, clowning, or acrobatics necessitates more social interaction than a twenty-minute jog on the treadmill. In fact, many of the skill sets are dependent upon group interaction. Acro-balance, for instance, consists of the strenuous art of balancing one human being atop another. To make it work, people have to get close.     

"Circus is such a good social tool," said Anya. "Boundaries in real life are crossed. Actually touching each other creates a lot of different kinds of bonds. And the Bay Area is really receptive to that kind of thing."

Though they may be fun and social, the circus arts are also a killer workout. Most students will burn anywhere from 200 to 500 calories an hour, or more, depending on the intensity of the exercise. My brief attempt at aerial work proved that just six or seven minutes was quite an intense workout. I can only imagine how grueling an hour of such activity would be.

Students build strength quickly, too. Aerial work might require supporting your whole body weight with one arm. Acro-balance might require supporting your body weight — and another person's.             "The difference it makes in people physically is very noticeable," said Hollander. "Aerial work, for example, provides one of the most well-rounded fitness experiences available — every muscle [used] in every direction. What's more, the fitness benefit is easier to attain when you're doing something you can also be passionate about, something you can have a great time doing. When the practice of what you do becomes the passion, you've got a real good recipe for success."    


Dog Shit Park at the Vulcan Lofts consists of collapsed pianos, defiant plants, a patch of concrete, and plastic deck chairs. The experience is rounded out by the smell of fuel, cigarette smoke, and dogs.  

On a recent Tuesday evening, about thirty people were focused on Aileen Lawlor, who was spinning a flaming staff. Her movements created an orange contrail and a whooshing surge of heat. Thumping bass extruding from a van in the parking lot nearby acted as a metronome. She gracefully manipulated the burning stick, rolling it down her leg to her extended left foot, then back to her hands. She's one of the top fire-spinners in the world, and she regularly practices at Dog Shit Park.  

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