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Circus 2.0: Seizing The Power Of The Greatest Show On Earth

Bloomington's second-wave circus veterans exchange death-defying feats in in the big top for breakthroughs in the studio.

  • Juliana Burrell hanging upside down during a circus show.

    Image 1 of 4

    Photo: Juliana Burrell

    Juliana Burrell hanging upside down during a circus show.

  • Juliana Burrell flies on the flying trapeze.

    Image 2 of 4

    Photo: Juliana Burrell

    Juliana Burrell flies on the flying trapeze

  • Juliana doing a Spanish Web act

    Image 3 of 4

    Photo: Juliana Burrell

    Juliana doing a Spanish Web Act

  • Inside the studio at StageFlight Circus Arts we get a glimpse at the meticulously organized equipment.

    Image 4 of 4

    Photo: Aubrey Seader

    Inside the studio at StageFlight Circus Arts we get a glimpse at the meticulously organized equipment.

“So we would perform three shows a day, and then tear down and then drive overnight, and then barely get any sleep… and set up again and three shows and tear down and drive.”

–Julianna Burrell

No Business Like Show Business…Or Is There?

Juliana Burrell spent five  years on the road performing with the Gentry Brothers Circus, Royal Hanneford Circus, Circus America, and Circo Martin Espana. She performed a variety of acts with each circus. One day in 1996, though, after weeks on tour with a circus that kept putting her in harm’s way, she came to the end of her rope.

“It was quite an eye opener,” Burrell says. “And after two weeks when we were having to perform in really bad weather and not wearing costumes, wearing bathing suits instead, and people were kind of kicking me off the pedestals to go when there was like lightning, I was like…

Okay I’m out of here I can’t do this anymore.”

As it turns out, running away with the circus isn’t all fun and games. Janet French and her daughter Hannah Bobzien both toured as circus performers.

“Well you toured for… how many years, you and Clint, on the road?” French asks her daughter.

“Five,” Bobzien replies. “Well I mean, five mostly solid years.”

“Yeah, so … that was … that was very stressful…” French asserts.

Hannah and her husband Clint Bobzien loved the circus, and wanted to continue to perform, but they also needed to find a way to make a living that didn’t involve being on the road all the time. They both had been teaching in the various circus arts since they were teenagers, Hannah since she was 14. So, they moved back to Bloomington, and in May 2015 they opened their own school.

Practice at StageFlight Circus Arts

About a 25 minute drive Southeast from the center of Bloomington, StageFlight Circus Arts sits on a wooded hillside above Lake Monroe. The studio space was converted from a pole barn and organized to accommodate a dazzling array of equipment. Even the ceiling is rigged – 9 aerial silks, two aerial hoops, a Chinese Pole and a triple trapeze. Hannah and Clint live in the tiny attached living quarters.

Today they are teaching a class for advanced teens. The four students, all high school aged girls, all come in together, giggling and talking about their days. They’ll be here for two and a half hours.

“How long have these guys been in training with [StageFlight]” I ask Hannah Bobzien.

“A year and a half,” Hannah replies. “They started last … May? I think, late June or May.”

“At first they learned their own discipline,” Hannah says. “About a year ago they performed their individual [discipline] acts. So that was aerial hoop, somebody did single point, single trapeze, and she,” Hannah points at one of her students, “did aerial silk…”

Aerial silks and aerial hoop performers mix dance and acrobatic tricks while hanging sometimes twenty feet in the air.

“And then we created a four person triple trapeze act on this thing here,” Hannah points to the triple trapeze hanging above us, “and they just did a fabulous job at our last show, I was so impressed, so we’re keeping that in our back pocket, we’re going to perform that more for sure.”

“And now we’re training for the next show and we have a duo Chinese pole act, and a duo hoop act, with two hoops.”

Chinese pole is an acrobatic discipline where performers use a vertical pole, usually around ten feet long, to support various tricks. They can climb the pole, spin around it, or lean out and pick up fellow performers. It takes a great amount of strength and balance to perform.

Class starts with nearly twenty minutes of warms ups and stretches. Hannah calls out each exercise and Clint goes around to each of the girls to give adjustments and assistance. It’s important that bad habits don’t get formed, even in practice.

After warm-ups they move on through easier but essential foundation tricks, like holding handstands.

“They’ve worked up to 45 second… I mean they can do longer but they do a 45-second and then a 30-second hand stand,” Hannah says. “And pretty much they just float in between hands for now.”

Then, thy’re on to tricks in handstands.

Clint and Hannah’s student Maya is mastering the headstand trick. She stands on her head and moves her legs from their elongated position, pointed straight at the ceiling, to a position where both feet are sticking out to the side. She’s practicing to master the immense control she must have in her core to go from one position to another. Hannah and Clint stand on either side of her giving her suggestions as she practices.

“Keep going rotate, rotate. Nice Maya!”

“Try to stay against the mat, bring it back up.”

“Ah!”

“Try one more!”

Then they move on to flying forward rolls.

Watch a video from practice In the Studio with StageFlight.

Flying Forward Through Fear

There is a lot of falling and a lot of failing involved in all of this. One student, Grace, would hit herself in the face with a mat each time she vaulted to do a flying front roll. I noticed that each time she’d lift the mat off her face, she’d be smiling and laughing.

“So how many times would you say that you fall in any given practice?” I ask.

“Oh dear. Me personally, I have a talent for falling … so… oh dear … upwards of 50 maybe,” Grace tells me. “I’ve kicked just about everything in the gym. The mat around the stove… that’s there because of me.”

“So how do you … when you fall so often and you’re trying to get something, how do you keep from getting frustrated and just giving up on it?”

“Clint says… to succeed you have to fail over and over again,” Grace says. “And we have someone who says, one of our other students says, ‘The first 100 times don’t matter.’  The vibe in here is really positive so when you mess up it’s kind of just like ‘Oh well, try again next time….’”

Whether you are a seasoned performer doing tricks under the big top, or a beginner gymnast in the studio, there is always a certain level of fear you have to manage, Clint explains.

“So a lot of that can be scary – learning front flips on a trampoline, learning backflips on a trampoline – and all of our advanced students went through that. They came in not knowing how to do anything, and you know they had to learn how to do these flips on their own.”

Clint remembers one student who was not sure of herself at first.

” … the first time she ever landed a front flip on her feet, on the trampoline, her mom had come early to the end of practice. And she didn’t even know that she was there, and her mom came in the building right as she did that flip, and she actually saw her complete that first flip on her own. And it was just this huge moment, big break through for her… and you know everyone is high fiving and giving each other hugs and stuff, her mom teared up a little bit. It was a really good experience.”

Joining A Community Of Entrepreneurs 

As it happens, when Hannah and Clint Bobzien opened StageFlight they joined a robust crew of circus arts veterans and enthusiasts who had already set up shop in Bloomington.

“I went off to the circus, and then came back and decided to get certified in Arts Education, so I could get a real job,” Juliana Burrell says.

“That was really fun too, except that I don’t like the structure of public schools. You know, I want to teach but I don’t want to do a lot of the other stuff that doesn’t make sense to me.”

Burrell decided to teach the Aerial Arts – aerial silks and aerial hoop. Both involve a combination of acrobatics and dancing, using props while suspended sometimes 20 feet in the air. Burrell had been training and performing in various circus arts since 1990. But setting up a business – her studio is named AsaBela Aerial Arts – was new for her.

“That’s the biggest frustration as an artist,” she says. “Like, I do the art part really well. But if you can’t do the business part, your art isn’t going to go very far.”

“But with aerial arts, I am able to experience the pleasure of creating and being involved with people, creating and learning, and still be able to make a living.”

“I think that being an entrepreneur is one of those daily challenges,” Paula Chambers says. “You get there and you go ‘Wait, how did this happen, I’m an entrepreneur now? Oh no! What was I thinking!’ But after a certain amount of time, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Paula Chambers calls herself the “fearless ringleader” of the Hudsucker Posse, which she started in 2009. In the years since, the hula-hoop performance troupe has become beloved. In 2016 Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton declared July 4th “Hudsucker Posse Day.” They perform yearly at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival, and the Bloomington Pride Festival, and hold bi-weekly jam sessions around town.

Chambers takes me back to the source of her hoop dreams:

“In October of 2008, I went to the Lotus Festival and I saw this wonderful marching band called March Fourth, they’re out of Portland,” she recalls, “and they had hoop girls and stilt walkers, and they had stripey tights and crinolines and I took one look at that and said, ‘That will be mine, I want to do that.’”

“But there weren’t hoops anywhere in Bloomington” Chambers says. “So my friend Evangeline engineered them, figured out how to make adult sized hula hoops–because little hoops don’t work–and we started hooping. And it took off like crazy and the community really got behind it, and before you know it we had dozens and dozens of people coming out to the park to jam with us.”

Building on the collective enthusiasm Chambers decided to professionalize her efforts. In 2015, with her business partner Poppe Tsunami, Chambers created Flow Motion Events.

“So we cover all the hoop arts,” Chambers says of Flow Motion. “Whether it’s single hoop, double hoop, minis, multiples up to six hoops. We have an instructor who juggles hoops.”

Flow motion also teaches the Polynesian string spinning art known as “poy” and performance using the martial arts weapon known as “staff.”

Flow Motion Events performs regularly in Bloomington, and has a troupe of circus artists available for hire for special events. The company has hosted a conference that circus artists from around the country for workshops and performances.

Rejecting Rivalry, Embracing Community

Instead of viewing one another as rivals, the circus arts studio owners, many of whom are women, acknowledge the presence of a strong, supportive community of entrepreneurs. They understand each other’s line of work, along with the struggles of being a fledgling business owner.

“And we’re able to go to one another and say, ‘I am beating my head up against the wall with my taxes, or how do you get clients, how do you retain clients, what are you doing?’ Chambers says of the women in the community.

“It provides us with a resource network, not only to have friends that know what you’re going through, but to have practical advice on a day to day basis. And some of us are better at some things than others, but we can definitely learn from one another. Like, how to not answer your phone after 9pm. That’s a good one I need to learn. And to not be answering emails at 12:30 AM.”

Beyond Entertainment 

Paula Chambers, Juliana Burrell, and Hannah and Clint Bobzien train students who might indeed run off with the circus. But the circus arts have offered different opportunities for growth, none of which involve barkers, clowns, nor elephants. The Bloomington Acro-Yoga Scene combines yoga and acrobatics. At Wild Orchid (owned and operated by Anita DiCastro) you can learn pole dancing and aerial arts for fitness. Laura Pence teaches Aerial Yoga, a combination of aerial silks and vinyasa yoga, at her studio Aeriology.

“Aerial Yoga is a little less intimidating than aerial silks because you don’t need to climb up high into the air,” Laura Pence says.

Pence learned the art at a now-defunct company called Flight Club.

“And eventually Flight Club dissolved.  As you do, the instructors ran away with the circus,” Pence laughs, “and one ended up in Florida, and one in Texas and one in California, and they were so incredibly generous that they gifted us a large portion of our equipment and said ‘Keep it going, don’t let it die!’ So co-owner Amy Polk and I started Aeriology.”

When Pence and Polk started Aeriology, Pence, who had been trained in power yoga, wanted to teach Aerial Yoga. So she came up with her own curriculum using the work of other Aerial Yoga instructors as a foundation, as well as her own ideas and experiments.

“[In class we provide] a fabric hammock or a knot tied on the silk to create a little hammock for you to rest in,” Pence explains. “So we try to translate a flowing yoga practice into the aerial practice so that you can really enhance some of the poses and get a lot more out of it than you would on the ground. It changes yoga, and I thought maybe it would be too easy to have support, or it would be too hard to do some things, and instead it’s just a completely different kind of challenge.”

Along with Chambers and Burrell, Pence is grateful for Bloomington’s burgeoning community of circus arts entrepreneurs.

“I feel like we all support each other and hold each other up,” Pence says. “It makes me so happy that a town of this size can support such a large and thriving and diverse circus community. I love when we have a chance to collaborate on things. Every time I get a chance to see Bernadette [Pace, the unofficial matriarch of Bloomington's second-wave circus movement] I am so joyful. We’re collaborating with Wild Orchid for a fall Student Showcase.”

Finding Self-Acceptance 20 Feet In The Air 

As the entrepreneurs saw their studios develop, they noticed that apart from providing students with skills and discipline, and opportunities to perform, the circus arts were actually changing the way some students thought about themselves.

“I think women are sometimes afraid to be strong,” Pence says.

“I know that so many young women have come to us dealing with things like eating disorders and body dysmorphia,” she adds.

Training in the circus arts, Pence suggests, builds body confidence in a unique way.

“People’s faces light up when they realize they can hang upside down the first time they come to a class,” Pence says. “And it’s just fantastic to guide people along that path to being stronger. They build confidence. It’s almost like a kind of therapy.…. and that it has changed the way they look at themselves. Because they’re not judging themselves as much based on their appearance as what they can do with their arms and legs.”

“It’s not about a thigh gap, it’s about a straight-legged inversion!” she exclaims.

“I actually insist that my students don’t hoop like me, that they hoop like them, and express themselves–that they not become cookie cutters of one another,” Chambers says.

Paula Chambers encourages each student to make their chosen circus art their own, and to have respect for their bodies rather than wishing they looked different.

“And what I teach in all of my classes is you are absolutely perfect exactly the way you are, this is the way your body is today, you may have goals, you may want to look different, but if you can accept yourself right from where you are, that’s really empowering, that a really empowering forceful place to be.

“There are millions of hoopers all over the world right now who are coming into their own personal power,” Paula says. “[Coming into their] sexuality, and expressing it however they like, which I think is a really exciting revolution to see.”

And young women are not the only beneficiaries:

“I do feel that it’s not entirely for women, though,” Pence claims. “My son is 14 and he is completely in love with silks. There are some men involved. So, I don’t feel like it’s a girl’s only club.” 

“I have seen several of our trans men members in particular, and our gay and lesbian members, become more confident in their bodies, and in their chosen gender bodies,” Paula Chambers says. “They really just start shining, and they say it makes them feel so happy, and they feel comfortable sometimes for the first time.”

Never Too Old to Run Away With The Circus 

But for women in particular, Chambers believes that circus arts are providing an opportunity to bust up the age-old stereotype that once you reach a certain age you can no longer be beautiful, bold, brave, or enjoy your own body.

“Certainly the demographic that is present in most of my classes, is absolutely mid 30s to mid-50s,” Chambers says. “And that is the demographic that is driving hoop dance right now. Those women have the focus to devote to a practice, a movement practice. They want to be back in their bodies, and they’re tired of sitting in an office chair, or driving the kids to school, and they are ready to step back into their own personal power, or some of them for the first time.”

“It really makes my day when I see a hooper in her 40s or 50s or even in her early 60s get a new trick,” Chambers says. “And they just burst out laughing, and they’re so happy it just brings them so much joy.”

“Last year, a woman came to us for her 65th birthday, with her daughter,” Laura Pence says. “And she said “You know what I want to cross this off my bucket list. I’ve always wanted to do this. I’m 65 today. Let’s do this.’ ”

“And Bernadette is 71 now,” Pence adds.

That’s Bernadette Pace, who set up a high flying trapeze rig in her Bloomington backyard in 1983 and effectively spawned this new generation of circus performers-turned-entrepreneurs. Oh, and she is actually 73 years old.

” …And she is on the flying trapeze every weekend,” Pence says. “Her splits on the silks are better than my splits on the silks. So you’re never too old.

“And,” Pence says, “it’s really nice to be able to open your own pickle jars.”

Circus: A Bloomington Tradition With A Bright Future 

Ever since the 1880s, when Henry Gentry took off as a teenager with a traveling dog and pony show, people in Bloomington have run off with the circus. The renaissance of the circus arts in town seems to belong to a different narrative–people are hooping and flying on the trapeze to feel better in their bodies, to accept themselves, to become empowered. The circus itself, with the tightrope, the lion tamer, and the freak show, may seem like a quaint, or archaic form of entertainment these days.

But there’s something about this particular brand of live performance that has an enduring appeal, Burrell asserts,

“The energy of a lot of people all coming together and watching the same thing happening all at the same time,” she suggests; “or you’re rooting for someone, or you’re expecting something and something surprising happens, and everybody is reacting–that energy is infectious and you don’t really get that sitting on your couch, alone, with the TV on.

“[When you're watching live performance] they’re actually singing or talking in front of you, and you’re holding your breath like, ‘Are they going to mess up?  Or, am I going to really be into this, did they really take me away into this other world?”

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