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The Lone Star Circus School: A Natural High

“Keep going, keep going, keep going,” an instructor yells. The student is manipulating yards of red fabric around her body, which is laid out horizontally, as she winds up and down with remarkable grace.

Other students are twirling in the middle splits, practicing an “L,” a move that requires a perfect arabesque, and learning how to climb the long ropes of fabric, known to the performing world as silks.

All Shapes and Sizes

At The Lone Star Circus School, students come in all shapes, ages, and skill levels.

Rebecca Foster, a lithe 50-year-old student with flirty lashes, started the classes about three years ago, inspired by Pink’s performance at the Grammys. Looking for a fun full-body workout, she Googled silks classes to find the school. Today she climbs to the top as fast as the 13-year-old gymnast who practices near her. “It’s a fun workout. You don’t realize how much [of your body] you’re actually using — even your fingers are sore,” she says.

In yoga pants and a Gamma Phi Beta T-shirt, Truett Adams wraps the silks around her legs and hoists herself into a move her student has been struggling with. She corrects another student’s position, securing his foot so he does not fall when he unravels. “Oh, that’s way better. I did not feel secure,” he says.

Adams, a theater major, graduated from Southern Methodist University in 2012. She was sent to Lone Star by her movement teacher, a circus enthusiast. He introduced her to his best friend, Fanny Kerwich, eighth-generation member of a French circus family and owner of Lone Star. “It’s been like my life ever since. I got bit by the bug,” Adams says.

Her students are ex-dancers and gymnasts, college students and housewives, and a martial artist. Their oldest member, 60-something, is coming back to the gym after surgery. The doctors told him they had trouble getting past all his muscle, Adams says.

A few of the students who come to Lone Star want to be circus performers. “They want to try out for the cruise lines, or the shows,” says Stephanie Stewart, instructor and board member at Lone Star. “I would say the majority of them are looking for alternative fitness, because they’re not typical gym or weights type of folks.”

A  Full Body Workout

Unlike running or lifting, which isolate parts of your body and can be monotonous, silks is as much a performance as it is a full-body workout. “I have run for miles and never got a runner’s high, but the minute I get on silks, I feel like a climber’s high,” Adams says. You need grace and strength to excel at the sport, she says.

Stewart’s background is in dance, acrobatics, and swim. Inspired by a Cirque du Soleil performance, and in need of an alternative to weight-lifting, she turned to circus classes for a boost to her fitness regimen, and then started the adult program at Lone Star. “Everything about my body started hurting, but then it started changing. I feel stronger than I felt when I was fifteen,” she says. Stewart bounds across the trampoline to warm up before instructing class, eschewing the value of straight legs and pointed toes, her blond hair atop her head in a messy bun.

Shavai Hopkins was bored at work. A recent Texas Women’s University graduate, she came to the school looking to fill a void and to get fit in the process. “I had an early-20s crisis,” she says. After a bit of internet research, she found Lone Star. “Now they can’t get rid of me,” she says, her bright eyes twinkling against her dark skin. With her infectious laughter and boundless energy, it’s hard to imagine her sitting behind a desk. Hopkins is in the process of transitioning to intermediate classes, which require you to stay in the air for seven to eight minutes, looping your tricks together to make a routine. “It feels like an eternity,” she says.

Pink-haired and clad in galaxy-print pants, one student in the silks circle fits the circus stereotype. Across the gym on the trampoline, a woman wears blue, green, and pink neon. But others, like the teenaged girl and her mother, or the wide-eyed newbies sitting  on the mats, look like they stumbled in by accident.

“Most of the people I meet I don’t ever see again, because it is really hard and the first month you start is the most terrible month of your life. A lot of people don’t make it through,” Hopkins says. She lost 15 pounds “out of nowhere” in her first month.

A Real Performance

But once the students build up their strength and flexibility, they can’t give up the rush of performing. “Despite the fact that we like to think it’s all a workout, when you’re working on silks, you’re working on performance,” Adams says.

“It’s very expressive. [A trick] can look like ten different tricks on ten different people,” Stewart says. “Once you get the strength to complete it, everything looks very individualized.”

Near the end of the class, most look shaky, but enthused. Two students high-ten after completing a new trick. One is sitting in the splits drinking a Gatorade. It’s “last call” for tricks, and no one in the circle is working on the same skill. Some rise high in the air, others crumple onto the mat below in exhaustion and defeat.

“There are plenty of opportunities to look stupid and embarrass yourself and you kind of have to get over that. Everybody here is learning, nobody is going to make fun of you and point and laugh,” Hopkins says, her hands trembling during the break between her beginner and intermediate classes.

Amid the sounds of trampoline springs, mood music, (“I pole danced to this song!” says one student to the side) and the whirring and groans coming from the silks above, cheering takes over the gym as students perfect new tricks or seek new heights. “They support each other really well,” Stewart says. It’s that camaraderie that keeps them coming back, even with chapped hands, sore muscles, and bruised egos.

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