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Cirque dreams: Kids learn wild and zany skills at these Pittsburgh circus art classes

Michael Machosky
November02/ 2017

Kids no longer threaten to run away and join the circus. But that doesn’t mean they don’t embrace cirque dreams.

Jenly Deiter and Kelsey Keller know the truth. They opened Iron City Circus Arts in the cavernous Brew House, South Side, in June.

“I have a Ph.D in biophysics,” says Keller, 31. “I was working in a lab, and as a stress relief, I was dancing—jazz, ballet, hip-hop.”

Deiter, 32, who also danced, has a Master’s degree in social work but became transfixed by the trapeze.

Keller has taught circus arts all over the country—and even ended up teaching and performing with Cirque du Soleil in Punta Cana for six months.

Now, the partners teach kids and adults the skills necessary to master aerial silk, aerial hoops, static trapeze, rope, and hammock. Though the action is mostly up in the air, it’s worth noting that there’s a lot of heavy-duty padding on the floor.

The thrill is not lost on students.

“One of my favorite moments was going to the very top of the silk in the new facility that has very high ceilings,” says Isabella Lybarger, 10, of Bethel Park. “I didn’t expect to do it and was shaking when I came down, but now I do it all the time. I also liked working on duo tricks with Jenley. She is super flexible like me, and almost the same size so it’s cool to work together!”

Dancers and gymnasts tend to jump right in. Kids who like flipping upside down on the monkey bars tend to take to it right away. But Keller says they take it slow and easy at first, giving younger kids a chance to get used to the balance and muscle control that keeps one aloft.

“We start everything low to the ground, especially for kids,” says Deiter. “We start with the hammocks and the silks. It depends on the kid. There’s kids that really like that they can spin and be upside down.”

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Kids at Iron City Circus Arts fly through the air with the greatest of ease, just like the daring young man on the flying trapeze.

Aerial on the rise

The growing popularity of circus arts is a bit ironic since the circus is dying out. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey famously gave up the ghost earlier this year. Still, the one circus that is reliably around is very popular.

“Cirque took away the animals and added a story,” Deiter says. “More like that are popping up.”

“It’s something new and different,” Keller agrees. “It’s a good workout.”

Iron City Circus Arts has a performing company, too, and some of the more advanced kids are included. The Iron City space is flexible enough for all but the biggest performances.

“My favorite moment with Iron City Circus Arts is my recent performance of ‘Fanciful Danciful,’ “ says Abby Richert, 13, whose goal is to work with Cirque du Soleil when she turns 18. “I loved this collaboration because I was able to perform with other artists and perform in a production with my circus family.”

Another spot to get your circus on is Pittsburgh Aerial Silks & Circus, which offers classes at five locations. They can even set up rigging for a circus arts party session in your backyard. Classes for kids from age 4 through teens range from beginner tumbling and swinging on the trapeze to posing in the overhead lyra hoop and aerial silks

Other circus skills

 Of course, not every circus act requires getting used to heights.

Be a clown: If you want to learn some professional-grade comedy skills to clown around with, you can’t do much better than Arcade Comedy Theater’s improv comedy classes for kids. Kids from ages 9 through 17 learn the basics of improvisation, working with an ensemble, being comfortable onstage and tricks of the trade—like the essential “Yes, and…” to keep a scenario going).

Be a juggler: Carnegie Mellon University has a juggling club called Masters of Flying Objects. Although run by CMU students, they welcome others who want to learn the fine skill of juggling. The website posts the days when they’re meeting—and they don’t mind spectators.

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It takes a special kind of balance to keep a unicycle upright. Photo from Thick Bikes

Be a unicycle rider: Of course, clowns need to get around too. If you want to learn how to ride a unicycle, Thick Bikes on the South Side does weekly meetups and classes in spring and summer.

“We had one girl who was interested in circus through her gymnastics, who wanted to broaden her repertoire,” says Chris Beech, owner of Thick Bikes.  “Mostly, it’s just people who wanted to try something new. It’s not the kind of thing you can just try, unless you have people who can show you what to do.”

Unicycles can range from $100 to $1,000, so they’re not particularly expensive. There are races, even mountain bike races, for unicycles.

“It’s much harder nailing the balance and muscle memory of keeping that balance,” Beech says. “On a bicycle, you can fall to the left or right. On a unicycle, you can fall 360 degrees.”

The Butler Wobble is a year-round unicycle group that operates outdoors during warmer months, then moves indoors at the Butler YMCA from November through April. Meetups run on Saturday afternoons.

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“Meet me at Dippy” is a familiar call from Pittsburgh Slackline. The group meets frequently in Schenley Plaza near the Dippy dinosaur statue.

Be a tight rope, er, slack rope, walker: If you’re looking to improve your balance, there’s Slackline Pittsburgh, who balance on slack lines. They can often be spotted in Oakland outside the Carnegie Library of Oakland right by Dippy. Free slackline workshops, which include kids, are offered from time to time. Watch the Facebook group for impromptu slackline popups.

Michael Machosky