Get Circus Fit With Adult Circus

Bored of the gym? Want to get trim for summer? Why not join Adult Circus at Belfast Community Circus School?

As we coast through March and into spring, thoughts turn to those well-intentioned New Year's resolutions for an improved lifestyle, and how, once again, they inevitably failed to materialise.

True, some of us may have joined a gym. Also true, some of us may be unable to think of anything more boring than counting down the calories on a treadmill or watching other people take part in spin class. Ouch!

But if, like me, you're starting to worry about what to wear on those sandy beaches this summer – or if you're ever likely to enjoy busting a gut in search of the perfect body – fear not, there is a way for art lovers to get trim with a smile ahead of silly season 2013.

For participants of the Adult Circus at Belfast Community Circus School, exercise is not a chore, it's a bonus. Housed in a former banana warehouse in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, the BCCS headquarters is a cavernous place which, every Wednesday, is transformed into a huge gymnasium.

Queing up outside with 20 to 30 other fully grown adults, I'm reminded of lining up for PE class at primary school. But there is no performance fear, no competitive edge. We're here out of a shared impulse to play, and that's what we're going to do. Adult Circus has caught on. I'll be ripped come August.

Adult Circus


'Being quite new to Belfast, Adult Circus came highly recommended from an ex-colleague,' says 24-year-old Murray Liddle. 'I had the desire to find an activity to keep fit during the week, but I wanted to find an interesting environment in which to do so, where I can learn new skills within a group of people rather than slog in a gym with my iPod.'

At 7.20pm on the dot, this week's enthusiastic group of Adult Circus attendees (ranging from teens to over 50s) exchange winter boots for stockings and slippers. The hula-hoops come out, the juggling clubs start swinging, the music is turned up loud and the floor mats are pushed and pulled into position underneath ropes, silks and trapeze.

After some mingling, lead tutor Anita Woods calls everyone to attention on the centre mat. Her style is not unlike an average PE teacher’s. Had she blown a whistle and gave the order 'Toys back in the box and form a circle!', we wouldn't have moved any faster.

Many of the participants are working toward a performance for the Adult Circus Cabaret in spring 2013, while there is no shortage of yogis and aspiring acrobats in the group, as well as some newcomers who are quickly put at ease with familiar warm-up activities.

The warm-up proceeds with intense and thorough stretching, culminating in attempts at the splits – attempts being the optimum word in this instance. Throughout the warm-up routine, Woods remains cheerful and encouraging. 'Smile and breathe,' she urges us. 'It’s much better when you smile and breathe.'

Then the group breaks up into stations according to skills. This evening’s focus is on juggling and diablo, aerial, trapeze and acrobatics. Any nerves amongst the newbies are soon allayed – being well aware of the risks involved in circus arts, the tutors take every precaution.

Nikki Elliott, age 47, has been attending Adult Circus since her daughter enrolled in Itty Bitty Circus five years ago. She is impressed with the high standards and professionalism of the class leads. 'They make it possible to be safe but also fun and creative. They treat adults like adults whilst keeping them safe and challenging their perceptions of what they can and cannot do.'

The comical names of the manoeuvres reinforce why this caution is necessary. 'Has everyone done The Foot Knot of Pain?' asks tutor, Helen Ashton, as she supervises beginners at the aerial ropes. Inexperienced first-timers are encouraged to do their best, but to also be aware of what Ashton terms ‘green pain’ and ‘red pain'.

She explains that ‘green pain’ is necessary to build strength and endurance, whereas ‘red pain’ is a sign that your body’s warning system is sounding an alarm when you push yourself too far. 'The circus is a very safe and inclusive space,' adds Elliot, 'and although each person progresses at their own speed, the tutors make what looks impossible possible with their constant encouragement.'

Watching some novices at acrobatics, I recall myself at 6-years-old, struggling to do cartwheels that came so naturally to my friends. It appears there is hope for me yet. Being able to laugh at oneself is vital in the crazy world of Adult Circus – breathless laughter is the soundtrack to the evening.

Adult Circus


As with any physically challenging work out, there are moments of frustration, trepidation and intense focus. However, there are also light bulb moments of elation when something clicks, as when one of the tumbling acrobats finally nails that cartwheel.

After spending just a couple hours at the BCCS, it is clear to me why the word ‘community’ is incorporated into their title. BCCS would not survive without the support and volunteer efforts of its passionate members, and as the class draws to a close, 'teamwork' is the buzzword that springs to mind. Tutors provide individual tuition to advanced attendees, while a regular participant takes over leading the general cool down.

'Circus is not a competitive environment,' according to regular, Karen Williams, of Newtownabbey. 'The members and teachers are not self involved, and each person is willing to help each other and promote that person's achievement.'

Like all new ventures, Williams found her first evening spent at Adult Circus a little overwhelming. 'I panicked and wanted to leave, ' she admits. 'I didn't think I would be able to do anything. But at the same time I was excited. I was keen to learn and get involved in shows, performing, volunteering and promoting the great work and dedication of the other members.'

That was more than three years ago. Many of the members seem to have a similar attendance record, although the Adult Circus class operates on a drop-in basis, demanding no long-term commitments or contracts from attendees.

At Adult Circus, it's all about learning and laughing – the exercise is a welcome by-product. I'm glad to have shared in the skills that BCCS are renowned for, and implore those without a performance background not to be put off. Adult Circus classes run from 7:30pm to 9:30pm every Wednesday. For more information, visit the BCCS website.