Fitness hangs in the balance in acrobatics class
A series exploring Boston’s unique fitness classes by someone who hates fitness classes.
As I wait for my trapeze class at Esh Circus Arts to begin, there’s a guy doing handstands in front of his female friends while effortlessly maintaining a conversation about dance classes around town.
In the corner are two guys practicing Cyr Wheel, one teaching the other how to master this beautiful, gravity-defying feat. Think Vitruvian man crossed with a gyroscope.
Trapeze bars, hoops, and long, luscious looking fabrics referred to as silks hang from the ceiling in this former warehouse in Somerville. It’s all so foreign to me — I wonder if I’m in over my head.
Our instructor, a smiling 20-something named Caroline Wright with more than a decade of aerial experience, leads us over to an enormous, thick mat to begin our warm-up. We form a circle and start to move: jogging, crawling like a bear on all fours, then flipping over to crab-walk. We run through a series of moves meant to warm up our bodies, with particular attention paid to our shoulders, quads, and core. A poster of the human musculature hangs on the wall.
There are only two other people in my class, so it feels like a private lesson. In fact, all classes at Esh are kept pretty small as a way to give more hands-on instruction and to closely monitor movements to avoid injuries.
“Circus is experiencing a renaissance right now,” Esh owner Rachel Stewart tells me. After graduating from the New England Center for Circus Arts in 2010, Stewart started Esh as a place where professionals and beginners could come together to learn and train in a safe environment with skilled instructors. It’s also a place where people from all backgrounds and sexual orientations are welcome, something that Stewart feels strongly about.
In addition to trapeze and other aerials, there are classes in acrobatics, tumbling, contortion, and aerial yoga. Esh also offers programs for kids.
If the word trapeze makes you imagine the wind catching your hair as a net teases you from below, you’re not alone. That’s certainly the picture I had in mind. In reality, this class happens close to the ground — the bar is hung only a few feet off the floor and centered above a thick mat.
We’re taught the basics of trapeze movement — how to go from hanging by our hands below the bar, to an upside-down pike, to a sitting position on top of the bar. How to drape our bodies across it in a move called “The Gazelle.” Standing on tippy toes atop the metal bar. How to rotate from sitting to our stomachs. The proper dismount.
There are only two bars for the three of us, so we take turns watching each other and trying the tricks for ourselves. My reporter’s hands have a hard time gripping the bar for very long without the calluses that build up over weeks spent perfecting these moves.
There are other people in various parts of the gym and I steal glances at a trapeze and hoop choreography lesson that’s happening beside us. Here’s what we’re striving for, I think. This is the culmination of many hours of training, strung together in a measured, graceful sequence of movements that’s like a suspended lyrical dance.
These people are so cool. It’s amazing what they can do with their bodies — what they’ve trained their muscles to do. After only an hour my shoulders and biceps are aching. In the corner of the gym a guy practices one-handed handstands on an elevated block. I try not to look like a wimp.
Next, we migrate to the hoops. It’s like a much sturdier Hula hoop, suspended from the ceiling so the opening of the hoop is perpendicular to the ground. Much of the tricks are similar to trapeze, except the hoop spins.
In one move, we hoist ourselves up to sit inside the hoop and then angle our bodies so the hoop hugs the curve of our spines. This requires balance and core strength. We place one foot inside so the hoop touches the soles of our feet. Then the other foot. This is called “Man in the Moon.”
I’m pretty sore the next day. I’ve used muscles I didn’t even know I had. It’s the furthest thing you can get from a traditional fitness class and instead is an introduction to a beautiful, powerful art form that requires a whole lot of strength and body conditioning to get it right. I can’t wait to go back.
Where to find it
Esh Circus Arts
44 Park St.
Somerville, MA 02143
Cost: Level 1 Hoop/Trapeze $35