Adults keeping fit through circus skills like aerial and acrobalance

Adults keeping fit through circus skills like aerial and acrobalance
  • PublishedSeptember 18, 2023

A woman with long grey hair is twirling herself around a loop of bright red silk several metres in the air and the next minute she’s on the other side of the room striking an elegant pose sitting in a metal hoop, also hanging from the very high ceiling. 

It’s lunchtime on Friday and a group of people in activewear is gathering in a high school gymnasium to warm up for an acrobalance class, as a morning aerial session ends.

Acrobalance is just one of the activities offered at Castlemaine Circus Inc that has seen a growth in enrolments since the pandemic lockdowns.

Circus performer and trainer Nicola Hall has just wrapped up her aerial session with a handful of older women who are rehearsing for a performance in November.

An older woman lying on the floor, supporting a younger woman with her arms and legs with a male trainer behind them.
Strength, balance and trust are all tested in acrobalance sessions.(ABC Central Victoria: Jo Printz)

Participants Nina Hakamies, Deb Capp, and Carol Henderson explain what attracted them to the class.

“I like to be up in the air,” Ms Hakamies says. 

“It’s definitely about fitness, strength, and flexibility, but that added element of being up there like a bird in the sky — that’s what I love about it.”

She prefers working on the hammock, which she says is softer on the body than the other apparatuses.

“I’m on the trapeze and then Carol’s on the hoop, but I think the other lovely thing about the hammock is that you can feel really held in it, so it can feel quite safe. Especially if you’re a bit concerned about some inversions,” Ms Capp says.

It’s about strength not performing tricks

With all the other fitness and sporting options available in the community, why choose circus?

Ms Henderson, 57, says she’s tried numerous types of exercise classes but she found circus skills to be the most engaging.

“When I turned 40 I took up circus and that was my main form of fitness and when I moved here I was looking for a gym or a fitness class but was bored with all the ones I tried,” she says.

“I love the upper body strength that’s required … and the way Nick runs a class. It’s not just about performing tricks,” Ms Capp says.

The uptick in adults attracted to non-competitive exercise comes as participation in traditional sport continues to decline across the country.

There has been a steady decrease in organised sport participation over the past 10 years, and the Intergenerational Review of Australian Sport report predicts it will drop a further 10 per cent by 2030.

Looking down the length of a large, open indoor space with a small group of people doing acrobalance at the far end.
Castlemaine Circus operates out of a former secondary school gymnasium.(ABC Central Victoria: Jo Printz)

Fitness in a non-competitive environment

Nicola Hall took up circus as a hobby about 20 years ago.

“I started travelling and working on social circus projects, and it just kind of eventually became my life … I went and studied a three-year circus course in Argentina, and then came back to Australia,” she says.

Ms Hall explains that the group is working on the static trapeze, a fixed bar held by two non-swinging ropes.

The group is also learning to master an aerial lyra, or metal hoop, and the hammock.

A head and shoulders portrait of Nicola Hall smiling with a blurred building and trees in the background.
Nicola Hall studied circus performance in Argentina and teaches aerial and circus skills in Castlemaine.(ABC Central Victoria: Jo Printz)

“There’s that sense of connection and shared experience. It’s a very supportive environment, a non-competitive environment,” she says.

“Post COVID too, I feel like everyone came out of that understanding how important physical movement was after we were all trapped in in our houses.

“There was also that sense that we didn’t know what’s going to happen so [people thought] ‘I’m just going to try that thing I always said I would’.

“It’s also become more acceptable or more accessible for people to go, I can do circus as a form of fitness.”

A young woman sitting in a relaxed position on a trapeze with a basketball backboard in the background.
Static trapeze is one of the aerial apparatus adults are learning to use at Castlemaine Circus.(ABC Central Victoria: Jo Printz)

Body injuries less common

Acrobalance trainer Luke O’Connor comes from a background of designing and performing circus shows with his partner.

But with a young family, he finds himself teaching skills more than performing.

“I’d done a bunch of abseiling, rock climbing, and bike riding as a young person … dance was great, and I loved it, but having that thrill and excitement of getting up very high and doing big things in circus was really good,” he says.

A man lying on the floor, supporting an upside down woman with his arms, and a man and woman either side ready to help.
Teamwork and partnering is a large component of acrobalance.(ABC Central Victoria: Jo Printz)

“One of the great things about acrobalance, other than maybe juggling, is it’s the most varied because it’s just human bodies.

Castlemaine Circus Inc board member and teacher Armstrong Scherlie took up acrobalance with his partner as something they could do together.

“I’d been doing a lot of trying to get my body strong and fit, and just being more comfortable and moving in different ways. Trying to find things that are fun, and connecting with other people and interactive,” Mr Scherlie says.

“It’s not like being in a gym, where it’s usually just you, motivating yourself in your own space. You’re in a group … where you’re really motivating each other.”

Taking gravity out of the mix

Physiotherapist Stephanie Zamoyski, who is also an aerialist, says this form of exercise really “pushes the boundaries of the normal range of body movement” than you might expect from other sports.

For older bodies, the floor-based conditioning of acrobalance can help build strength and stability, improving balance, and aerial work is good for hip and back mobility.

Ms Zamoyski says while there is a higher propensity of shoulder, wrist and back injuries associated with circus training, aerial has the advantage of taking gravity out of the mix.

“You’re offloading some of that gravitational stress on the body when you’re hanging upside down in the air,” says Ms Zamoyski, similar to how the buoyancy of water helps when swimming or doing water aerobics.


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