Vezina runs away to the circus

Karli learns the ropes from instructor Natalie
Karli learns the ropes from instructor Natalie. Photo By Jen Georgopollos.

You never know what people get up to in their free time. Your quiet, geeky co-worker could be in a neo-punk-grunge band; your auntie could be mixing it up with whizzes in a chess club…or your Facebook friend could be training for the circus. Aerial aerobics to be exact, which has become something of a trend in The Six.

My free time usually involves kickboxing classes or tucking into a good book, but this time, I traded my wraps and gloves for trapeze bars and silks at the Toronto Circus Centre in Leaside. I never studied gymnastics before, so acrobatics under the big top was going to be interesting.

Founder of the Toronto Circus Centre, Jen Georgopoulos, is a former competitive gymnast and a professional circus artist with decades of children’s programming in her back pocket. Jen owned and operated another Toronto circus school for a decade before opening a new school here in January 2017. “I wanted to be in a neighbourhood, and Leaside seemed like a really great neighbourhood,” she said.

To ensure my greatest chance of survival, I figured I should start with the Adult Beginner class. Many of Jen’s students have gone on to become professionals over the years, so I knew I was in good hands. I signed up for the Saturday morning class and ate my Wheaties all week in preparation. My classmate for the hour was Maria Karam, founder and president of Tactile Audio Display, who just started her second semester of the Adult Beginner program. The best part was that Maria was able to show me what I could accomplish if I kept up attendance.

We started with a warmup to get limber, then hit the aerial trapeze (the swinging bar that looks like a bird swing), where I learned how to hang properly without bunching my shoulders under my ears. Once we acquired some basic skills, we moved to rope climbing, which wasn’t as successful for me as the trapeze, but I got the general idea. Rope climbing is clearly not in my future and I’m okay with that. We can’t be good at everything, right?

Our final feat looked like the holy grail of circus apparatus. Two giant strips of red cloth hung down in columns in the far corner of the gym, anchored by ropes that ran across the ceiling and down the wall. These drapes of the gods are called aerial silks (or ribbons) and are used by performers doing aerial acrobatics while entwining themselves in the fabric. It was absolutely stunning to watch a professional like instructor Natalie Fullerton use the silks, and afterwards, we tried our best to emulate her. I learned how to sit, stand and lean back on the silks and after 10 minutes, I was trembling, but proud to report all bones and muscles remained intact.

To get back on solid ground, we did some hula hoop action (also not in my future) and learned about the performing art of poi. Poi consists of swinging hand-held tethered weights in a rhythmic motion, usually to music and often while dancing. Traditionally, poi dancing comes from the Maori tribe of New Zealand, but in circuses around the world, you may know it as fire dancing.

“There’s so much variety in circus…there will be something that you’re really good at and something that you’re really challenged by,” Jen said. She cautioned not to worry that you’re not in shape enough to join a class. “Just come in and use this space to make yourself stronger and more flexible.”

I can’t say if I’m more flexible after flying high at Jen’s new school, but I do recommend the experience to anyone of any age who wants to try something a little bit out of the ordinary.

Classes, including for kids 2 to 16+, take place Wednesdays and Saturdays at Leaside United Church (822 Millwood Rd). There will be summer camp for kids 5-13, and circus birthday parties are available nearly every weekend.

Until next time, for science!

About Karli Vezina 22 Articles
Karli Vezina earned her Journalism Diploma at Humber College and then a BA in Communications at Athabasca University, Alberta. She taught English as a second language in South Korea for 3 years. Karli has been a contributing writer for Chart Attack Magazine, Playback Magazine, OhMyNews International and is a founding member of the Weekly Wanderer online.