“Keep your knees soft, hold my hands, don’t look down,” Guinevere DiPiazza said. “Just try to keep your eyes up. Eventually, you get a feel for it. Eventually, kids get going on this on their own.”
She was instructing the reporter on how to operate an odd looking four-wheeled device used to prepare kids for eventually riding a unicycle. While this device looked a lot like two roller skates connected in the middle, the idea was to teach balance and how to get used to the motion.
DiPiazza said that for most people, it was simply about practicing.
“The more you practice, the better you get,” she said, although this humble reporter did not do well on the practice skates used to help prepare students for riding a unicycle. “Even you will get better with practice,” she said with a laugh.
One of the kids at the program, Henry, even had his own unicycle, giving him a leg up on the others.
“Keep your eyes straight” was also the advice given by Elizabeth Ellis when 7-year-old Virginia got on a high wire practice set for the six foot walk from one end to the other. “Feel the wire with your foot. You want to know where you are at all times.”
“We’re building a foundation for them to do anything.” – Guinevere DiPiazza
A half century ago, kids used to dream about running away to the exotic and strangely wonderful circus, a fantasy of living a life off the social grid. Over the last few decades that dream has become somewhat tarnished by the slow decay of carnival sideshows that even the most seasoned professional performers said had degraded a once-noble profession.
But thanks to Weehawken-based Aerial Acrobat Entertainment, kids don’t have to fantasize about circus life or even consider running away. During those 12 weeks this summer (with hopes that it can continue on a modified schedule in the fall) local kids and adults can get their taste of what it’s like to perform in a circus, learning the crafts while getting exercise.
Many of the kids who attended the walk-in sessions at Next Step Broadway in mid-July had already taken part in previous exercises, learning how to balance feathers on their hands, shoulders, even noses, or how circus performers use the hula hoop.
But on this day, they were to learn how to walk the tight rope – although in this case, the rope was strung only a foot and a half above the ground and two seasoned circus performers stood side by with the kids to make sure they kept their balance.
Lessons from a seasoned pro
The kids, ranging between 4 and 11, were only vaguely aware of the extensive performance experience of their guest teacher, who had performed far and wide in various troupes, including the well-established Big Apple Circus.
Ellis didn’t run away to the circus as a kid or even grow up in a circus family. She had started in a career in finance, and got a taste for performance while at Club Med.
Even then she was no novice, having a gymnastics background, and perhaps that was why she was so taken by circus performance. When she got the chance, she took off on a career that brought her as far south as Mexico and the West Coast.
She still performs, but also teaches gymnastics and circus arts. She noted that the tarnished image of the circus is rapidly being refurbished, partly because of national acts like Cirque du Soleil, but also because people are waking up to the remarkable art that has always existed behind circus performance.
Her guest appearance at Next Step Broadway was no fluke either. Ellis has taught with DiPiazza in the past, and agreed to come to Jersey City to help fill substitute for the usual performer.
DiPiazza called Ellis “a superstar,” something she shied away from, even though the kids were treated by teachers as stars.
Summer program inspires trust
During the summer, kids and adults at different sessions can drop in, although the group hopes to make this over into a regularly scheduled class in the fall.
The program does a lot of balancing routines with various objects and once they master these, the program will hold a kind of obstacle course to show off the skills they learned.
The kids do a variety of routines during the hour-long session, although all get to walk the high wire. Ellis holds their hands as they walk across the tight rope/wire first one way then back.
“This is about teaching trust and overcoming fears,” DiPiazza said. “This is not just fear of heights, but fear of not doing being able to do something.”
But she said she likes doing things smartly, following the rules, and following directions.
“All these things are common to most skills, such as dancing to aerial routines,” she said. “We’re building a foundation for them to do anything.”
DiPiazza said she started with dance as a kid, and started doing aerial about ten years ago.
“I meshed into circus world,” she said. “I didn’t start in the circus world; I just sort of ended up there. There was always another skill to learn.”
She said the big topic in the circus world is about the impact on the industry of going mainstream.
“Prior to this, it was informal, rather underground, and sometimes dangerous,” she said.
In Europe and elsewhere, circus arts are recognized, but in America, the industry has had a bad rap, partly deserved. Yet this is changing, she said.
“Now it’s turning around and being recognized as a legitimate art form,” she said
But safety has become a significant focus as the general public starts picking up on some of these skills.
“I came from a formal dance background, so I look for more formal structure. This is the way you do it,” she said, noting that she attended formal training at a school in Vermont where she got taught how to teach these arts, part of a national educational organization. She will soon be traveling to Montreal for its educator’s conference.
“I’m big on the educational element and big on the professional approach,” she said.
In some ways, this is a new venture for Aerial Acrobat Entertainment, which in the past has done productions around Hudson County, including events in Hoboken.
DiPiazza said circus skills have become popular partly because they are a unique way to exercise, but also because they engage people in a number of ways, teaching them balance and concentration – skills almost lost in an era of modern technology.
At times, kids need to work as a team. But in many cases, they are challenging themselves to do things they wouldn’t otherwise learn.
The head Circus Coach who usually works with DiPiazza is Paul Del Corral.
DiPiazza is a star in her own right, having performed aerial and as a dancer. Prior to this, her company basically provided shows, but it has been her goal to open a school and teach many of these techniques.
Bringing on Ellis as a guest instructor fulfills one of the goals of the school: to provide students with some of the best professional teachers in the industry.
“Of course, the dream is to have our own home,” DiPiazza said. “We do not teach classes in Weehawken, but we have our offices there. We really started as a performance company, and now we’re expanding this new branch. My company does private parties, corporate events, fundraiser, galas, festivals, all kinds of things like that.”
Last summer they did a show on Pier A, “Circus under the Stars,” before the city’s movie night. They also performed at the Hoboken Arts and Music Festival, and at parks in Jersey City, and hope to do work at some of the farmers markets around the city during the summer as well.
“We like doing demonstration for kids in the parks to let them explore the props,” she said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.