By David Quinones
Tucked away in a row of warehouses, the South Florida Circus Arts School may not look like much from the outside, but stepping through the front doors can be a transformative experience.
Lengths of aerial silk hang from the 25-foot ceiling, suspending women who are practicing acrobatic moves that mimic a mid-air ballet. A 9-year-old girl with clown face paint ambles by on three-foot stilts. A man who looks like he should be the starting tailback for the Miami Dolphins contorts into impossible shapes while a class makes game efforts at matching him.
Welcome to the circus.
“It's a total-body thing,” says Ebon Grayman, an instructor at the school who spent more than a decade with Cirque du Soleil. “When you're doing circus, it's about controlling your own body, not just a couple of weights. There's nothing like it.”
The school offers a variety of training programs, and teachers like Grayman focus primarily on core strength, running students through a warm-up battery of poses that look like extreme yoga. The crux of a circus workout is working with one's own body weight - a high-impact series of movements and motions that test and increase dexterity.
The school is unique to South Florida.
“We're the only game in town,” boasts owner Laurie Allen, whose daughter Elisa - the one with the stilts - has taken to the big-top game. Asked how long she has been on stilts, Elisa replied, “I just learned yesterday.”
Classes range in size from busier sessions Wednesday and Thursday nights - when about a dozen pupils of mixed experience levels pack the sweltering classroom - to one-on-one workouts during the days and weekends tailored to the individual. The workout looks fun but is actually quite grueling.
“The sweat really pours in here,” Allen says.
After warm-ups, students split into groups to scale silks and climbing ropes. Advanced acrobats walk novices through swinging trapeze routines, launching themselves from a wide wooden ring and onto mats that cover the floor.
Tina Reine, whose tall, thin frame floats between the draped silks as if she was born there, points out that every fluid movement is difficult.
“It's harder than it looks,” said Reine, who makes the weekly trip to the class from Palm Beach Gardens. Before her current career in carbon commodities trading, Reine was a Las Vegas showgirl who also auditioned for Broadway shows. Circus gives her an exhibitionist outlet while also keeping her in shape.
“It just brought me right back to what I'm passionate about and what I love,” she said. “I look forward to this night all week long.”
Big-time shows like Cirque du Soleil have scouted the school, and recently the Las Vegas-based La Rive signed circus veteran Grayman. But while he waits for the call to action, he plans to continue to train for Allen.
“My philosophy is to work hard but to have fun doing it,” he said. “And nothing is more fun than this.”
South Florida Circus Arts School, 15191 NE 21st Ave., North Miami Beach; 954-540-1344; www.sfcas.com
Classes: offered 7 to 8:15 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; individual training and afterschool sessions also available.
Cost: $15 per class; specials available for advance and monthly payments.
Circus instructor Ebon Grayman demonstrates several maneuvers on the aerial silks. Photo by: Carl Juste