Running away to the circus for exercise

'Trapezius' class teaches earthbound folks how to move like swinging stars

Health & Fitness

July 18, 2004|By Richard Seven | Richard Seven,Seattle Times

They all, to some degree, dream of running away and joining the circus.

But right now, Jordan Schwartz is focused on a task. He clings to two strands of curtain, 10 feet above a mat, and kicks his left foot -- flailing like a man who has tape on his shoe -- to try to form a loop in the fabric to use as a foothold.

It is a basic move, one his instructor and creator of this circus workout, Lara Paxton, makes look as easy as tying a shoe. But Schwartz and others in this particular class are beginners, and they are working without a wire.

As he sticks with it, Paxton looks after other students in her "Trapezius" exercise class in Seattle. Some are queued at the rope, where they will work on a low-altitude maneuver she calls "ball on a rope." Some try gymnastic poses on hanging rings.

It takes him the whole class, but just as it is ending, Schwartz performs the move. Paxton leads a round of applause.

"That was hard, but I wasn't going to let it win," he says, smiling after class. Then he looks up and sees Carri Andersen, a longtime student of Paxton's advanced class, wrapping herself in several parts of the curtain and floating without a trace of effort. He smiles and shrugs. She's had practice.

Paxton is co-founder and artistic director of an edgy, playful Seattle performance troupe called Circus Contraption. Many of her students learned about her class after becoming intrigued by circus performances.

Paxton herself became fascinated by trapeze dance after taking lessons from Tamara Dover (known as Tamara the Trapeze Lady) and then an intensive summer course with Robert Davidson, a pioneer of aerial dance. She studied the art in London, where she became more interested in "circus art" than strictly trapeze dance.

She and a partner also spent two months at a circus school in Argentina, learning the art from Oscar and Jorge Videla, who perform as the Videla Brothers.

"What they teach, they lived and breathed all their lives," she says. "You feel the deep knowledge and strength when you learn from them."

If it's not your average workout, it's not happening in your usual gym, either. The class is held inside a former garage on an old naval base in Seattle.

The space is also home for Paxton's troupe. A skeleton hangs on one high trapeze. Unicycles, juggling pins and clown stilts are positioned around the perimeter. As beginners work, a pair of performers perfect their tandem skill off to one side.

Yet, when it comes right down to it, it's a gym class with students focusing and struggling on equipment dangling from solid wooden beams.

Paxton has been teaching the class for a couple years. First, it was a job. Now, she says, it's a way to pass along an art and encounter an eclectic mix of people. "I always seem to leave the classes with more energy than I went into them with," she says. "It feels so good when you see the transformation when people get stronger and more confident."

She considers the lower back, shoulders and neck the most important body parts in this kind of exercise, with arms a surprising fourth. She preaches grace and form, often reminding students that a good-looking posture is good for you. She has a no-thumping rule, meaning that if she hears you land, you're not doing it right.

Paxton says she hasn't had anyone experience a serious fall yet. Participants always learn moves at low levels, going higher as they gain expertise and comfort.

"I spot until I feel a student knows the move well enough, and I generally try to let people know the 'backup plan' if a move goes wrong; that is, how to fall safely or catch themselves in a different way."

More of a problem, she says, is people pushing themselves too hard and trying "a cool move" before they are strong or flexible enough. After a few students complained of mild shoulder injuries, she began encouraging beginners who didn't have much strength to start on trapeze and hoop. Then, they move to the more demanding rope and fabric.

"As with a lot of things, the types of injuries aerial can aggravate, it can also really help, if done properly," she says.

Andersen, 31, grew up learning ballet, tap and modern dance, and one day watched a small circus troupe perform. She told a friend how much fun it would be to run away with the circus. The friend happened to know Paxton.

"I didn't have any upper-body strength when I started," says Andersen. "The day after my first time on the rope, I was in more pain than I think I've ever been. Every muscle was sore. But I went back. It's so exciting to be up high and have biceps, which I never had before.

"Definitely," she says with a laugh, "worth the rope burns."

To learn more

The "Trapezius" exercise class, which includes lessons in static trapeze and also focuses on balancing and acrobatics, are "aimed at increasing strength, flexibility, poise and confidence," according to the organization's Web site.

For more information about the program, visit

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