Cirque Wonderland Brings Aerial Arts to Iowa

Photo courtesy of Felicia Coe

The ceiling of Cirque Wonderland is dripping with jewel-colored silks, metal hoops…and people. Students and performers are practicing aerial art throughout the studio, hanging, twirling, and twisting into various poses I can’t imagine my body ever contorting into.

I am not a student or a professional, but I am getting the feeling I’m in trouble. Giving aerial arts a try seemed like a great idea before I was actually standing next to a trapeze and watching owner, coach, and aerial performer Felicia Coe flip upside down and explain how each stunt works. First, though, she gives me some background on aerial arts and her own experience.

Coe has been an aerial artist for about eight years; she tried it once and “loved it and never stopped.” She never expected to to open her own studio, but after a stint of teaching at the Des Moines Social Club, she decided to take the leap and open her own place. “I never thought this would become what it has become,” Coe says.

I wonder what draws people into her classes. Her clients are mostly women between 20 and 40, but she sees children, men, and folks over 60 coming in to give it a try, too. Like me, Coe says their interest is piqued by the thought of giving something new and unusual a try.

“I think most of the people who walk in they think they’re just going to try it,” Coe says. “They think ‘this is cool, I’m going to try it a couple of times,’ and then people get hooked and they come back because they’re sore in places they never thought they’d be, or they were more successful than they thought, or they had a lot more fun” than they thought they would.

“I never thought this would become what it has become.” —Felicia Coe

Coe starts me out on the silks. These are full, floor-to-ceiling fabrics that people might associate with trapeze shows in Las Vegas. The students in the room make it look easy—something I’m pretty sure I won’t do. Before we begin, I ask one of Coe’s longtime students, Jessica Uhl, for advice.

“Just try it, keep an open mind, stick with it and [Coe] will walk you through it.… You’ll be just fine,” Uhl says. My feet still firmly planted on the ground, Coe tells me that people with experience in gymnastics, rock climbing, and yoga often pick up on the sport quicker than others. I have all three, but I’m still skeptical. These women all look graceful and strong while they’re in the air—and the last time I was called graceful was—well, never.

With Coe and Uhl’s words of encouragement in mind, I do my best to balance myself on the silky fabric and flip myself upside down … and I don’t make it. I give it another shot and (with Coe close by and ready to steady when necessary) I make it into the position Coe had told me to aim for.

“Good job!” I hear from multiple voices in the room. Coe coaches me through a couple of other positions, and I’m thrilled when my body follows her directions. Whether I looked the part or not, I felt graceful and capable.

Coe walks me through the studio and teaches me something on each different apparatus, all with varying degrees of success. She caps off our session with some partner acrobatics that puts me a few feet off the ground balancing only on her hands and feet—a basic position that reminds me of the game “Birdie on a Perch.” When I’m back on my feet, I take stock of how I’m feeling: primarily badass and a little sore. I suspect this soreness will probably be with me a few days—I’d just used muscles I didn’t even know I had, after all.

“There’s so many little muscles you use doing aerial that you cannot work out on a machine,” says Allison Voshell, performer and coach. She’s been training for around three and a half years, but her first experience was a lot like everyone else’s. “I had been doing weightlifting at the gym so I thought I’d be able to do stuff at my first class, and that was not the case,” Voshell says.

Like all of Coe’s other students who gave it a shot and stuck around, Voshell has made massive strides since her first class all those years ago. For folks who are curious about aerial arts but not convinced they can do it, Coe says to try it before counting themselves out.

“If you don’t like it you never have to come back,” says Coe. “You did it once and you have an Instagram picture. And if you realize, ‘OK this is something I can build up to,’ then you have something awesome to do now.”

Cirque Wonderland is having its grand opening celebration on May 12.

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