After a couple of tries, Kelley Baker kicked up her leg and hooked it around the bar during her first trapeze class at Premier Cirque in Hazel Dell. Pulling yourself up to sit on a trapeze is — in and of itself — a workout, even before you try any flips or tricks.
“I always thought people were born into the circus,” joked Baker, a 42-year-old Vancouver resident.
Circus arts are centuries old but enjoying new popularity. The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil sets the bar, but troupes and circus schools are spreading throughout the United States to engage everyday people in the art form.
The circus-arts scene thrives in Portland. The first such studio opened here in 2018.
“I’ve always wanted to try circus arts, but I didn’t want to drive to Portland,” Baker said. “When it opened here, I jumped on it.”
In addition to Premier Cirque’s trapeze class, Baker has also taken aerial silk classes, in which participants suspend themselves from fabric dangling from the ceiling.
Premier Cirque founder Brittany Ashworth, 34, used to commute to rehearse in Portland. She grew weary of the drive and decided to create a studio dedicated to circus arts on this side of the Columbia River.
As she likes to say, “You can run away with the circus, and be back home in time for bed.”
Ashworth began the business in her Orchards home, where she hung her trapeze and aerial silks from its tall ceilings. In 2019, she moved Premier Cirque to Hazel Dell. It operates out of D.F. Athletics, a cheerleading school equipped with a spring floor and lots of foam mats. Silks (also known as tissu), hoops (known as lyra) and trapeze bars hang from the rafters.
Ashworth, who grew up in Portland, started participating in circus arts classes nine years ago soon after a move to San Diego. Things weren’t working out with her boyfriend, and she didn’t know many people there.
“It was a time in my life when I was kind of discovering who I was,” Ashworth said.
“I found this circus studio on Google. I tried it out and fell in love. I was getting in the best shape of my life, but I also had the opportunity to perform and make friends.”
It’s that performance aspect that makes Premier Cirque more akin to a ballet studio than a gym.
“Aerial makes people feel embodied. Performing is a way they get to feel sexy and be seen,” she said. “The fitness part is the bonus.”
The studio staged a performance in December, and plans another for May.
“When people are working out at a gym, they put headphones in and tune out. They’re just going through the motion of running or stair-stepping,” Ashworth said. “When you are climbing high on a silk or flipping upside-down on a trapeze, you have to be present. You have to be inside your body, inside your mind and completely present.”
Premier Cirque’s schedule includes about a dozen classes, most open to beginners, and a couple for children.
Ashworth doesn’t require students to enroll in a series, but she does ask them to sign up on the website before classes, because they are capped at eight participants. Students can drop in for $30 a class, or pay $99 a month for as many classes as they want.
At a recent Saturday class, instructor Renee Donahue took the class through a series of stretches and warm-ups for about 20 minutes before moving on to the trapeze.
“You wrap your thumb around the bar,” she told the class.
Then she had students take turns hunching and dropping their shoulders while hanging from the trapeze bar to strengthen deep supporting muscles.
“Welcome to an aerial workout,” Donahue encouraged. “You’ve got this.”
Whoops and cheers echoed throughout the studio as each student executed a new skill — sitting, standing or swinging on the trapeze.
“You get an endorphin rush when you get upside-down or up high,” Baker said after the hourlong class came to a close. “You’re not going to do anything else all day as fun as that.”