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Workout Wednesday: Cirque School

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Top: Students practice their skills at Cirque School; Bottom: Aloysia Gavre on the aerial fabric

It was with great hope that I began my search for an aerial arts class here in L.A.

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I was certain that is there was one thing this town could teach me, it was to learn how to fly. But from the time I brought my workout clothes to a nightclub that had been listed as a studio to the email I got telling me that another class had relocated to San Francisco, my trapeze dreams seemed to soar farther and farther away.

Close to giving up, I made one final call to Cirque School in West Hollywood. Success! They were up and running, and offering classes.

The following Saturday, I showed up late to the airy second-floor studio and the other women around me were already deep into the rhythm of the class. I scrambled in and deposited myself on the mat.

Aloysia Gavre, the petite but strong instructor, promptly passed me a Pilates ball and I prepared to start with a typical warm-up -- maybe some deep breathing, or a nice hamstring stretch. But Gavre, a veteran of Cirque du Soleil, was having no such thing. Shoulder stretches were followed in rapid succession by back bends, which were followed by crunches and pike stretches.

And that was just the beginning.

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The class is based on a combination of circus arts and Pilates, in order to increase strength and body awareness, and because the two are both passions of Gavre's. "Cirque School started for me because when I was in Cirque du Soleil, they made us do Pilates as injury prevention," she says. "When I moved to Los Angeles I wanted to mesh the two--circus arts and Pilates." For both, says Gavre, "You want to have your shoulders engaged, have your core engaged, it's very much mind body connection...it's perfect cross training."

So for the next hour, we made our way around the room, stopping for three minutes at a time at various stations. There were about six stations altogether, and true to the premise of Pilates, there were a number of flexibility-improving stops interspersed between taking turns on the aerial fabric and the trapeze.

I have to own up to the fact that I did the flexibility ones begrudgingly, only because I am hideously un-flexible and dislike being reminded of that fact. I also have delusions of grandeur when it comes to anything aerial or circus-related (even if I admittedly execute it sans a great deal of grace), and was really just biding my time until I could demonstrate my innate talent for climbing things.

So for the first few stops on the trail, I watched with envy as my classmates flipped upside down on the trapeze and twisted themselves into small balls or into splits, hanging off the aerial fabric like human Christmas lights. In the meantime, my stations consisted of assuming difficult positions--arms outstretched overhead, legs spread midair--and placing weighted bags on my body to increase the intensity.

I finally got to the trapeze...and swiftly realized that it was nowhere near as easy as my classmates made it look.

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I'm pretty strong, but being suspended from a bar for any significant amount of time is trying for the muscles, the skin, and the psyche. Gavre is well aware of the challenges inherent in what she teaches, mentally and physically. "When you're inverted [in the air], your mind goes to so many different places - it's very hard to get your breath because you're panicked," she says. "We try to get the breathing part down, to be calm with it. Instead of a forceful exercise, it's coming into a calmness and trust in your own body."

Aha...mind/body...Pilates...it's all coming together. And as I held myself upside down off the trapeze in a pike position for my third turn, and Elizabeth Newton, Gavre's co-instructor, told me to look directly at my knees and take a few deep breaths, I had a startling realization, given the circumstances. This is not just about recreating my days as a kid playing on the swingset in my backyard. It's a combination of the fun and daring of flinging myself around in the air with the abandon of a reckless child, and the discipline and rigor of holding my body still in order to create actual art.

And then, my hands started to slip a little, I panicked, and I asked if I could come back down.

In total, each of us took about three turns around the room before we finished and stretched out once more for a cool down. The class is open to all levels--some students never made it past the lowest few feet on the aerial fabric, and some did tricks in midair.

The next day when I woke up, I thought about the fact that there is an intriguing combination of strength and sexiness that comes from being a circus artist. Maybe it's the ecstatic defiance of death inherent in hanging from a trapeze or from a piece of aerial fabric, or the intangible confidence derived from a mastery of your own body. I don't know.

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But I do know that between the muscles in my back that haven't seen the light of a gym...well...ever, being sore, and the hardcore red spots on my hands that will hopefully someday become calluses, my search for a circus arts class that culminated with the fortunate discovery of Cirque School was well worth the effort.

Overall Workout: Really, really good - and full body
Hobby-Developing Potential: High
Next-Day Pain: Pretty Intense
Cost: $40.00 per class

Cirque School at Absolution LA
8535 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
310-657-7878

Photos courtesy of Aloysia Gavre