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Arkansas Circus Arts: under the big top 

Group helps keep the three-ring arts alive for a new generation.

click to enlarge HEALTHY HOOPING: At Arkansas Circus Arts (from left to right): Camille Rule, Amanda Evans, Samuel Pettit and Rachel Mercer. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • HEALTHY HOOPING: At Arkansas Circus Arts (from left to right): Camille Rule, Amanda Evans, Samuel Pettit and Rachel Mercer.

Though circuses have become enough of a rarity these days that there probably aren't many kids who dream of chucking it all and running away with one, circus arts — stilt-walking, trapeze gymnastics, fire play, hula hooping, tumbling, prop-balancing and the like — have seen a resurgence in recent years, actively pursued by troupes and schools coast to coast as people seek both a physical art form and a way to get fit that doesn't include spending hours doing repetitive motions at the gym.

Little Rock's Arkansas Circus Arts, a runner-up this year for Performing Arts Group, has been in operation for three years. A troupe of around 20 based at the ACA studio at 1101 Cumberland St. performs at public and private events all over the state and teaches classes to help usher a new generation of daring young men and women into a three-ring life.

Camille Rule is the founder and co-owner of Arkansas Circus Arts. Coming from a background of dance and ballet, Rule said that she discovered the activity — which fans call simply "circus" — through hoop dance, a more acrobatic take on the hula hoops you might have played with as a kid. From there, she started doing yoga, fire dancing, acrobatics and "aerial arts" — using suspended hoops or strips of fabric attached to the ceiling.

"Circus is a great way to get exercise, but it also builds your mental and emotional confidence," Rule said. "The benefits have not only been physical, but I'd say that it definitely improves self-esteem in children and adults. It gives you goals that you can work on. It pushes you to try to meet those goals and grow as a person."

Rule said that the circus community in Central Arkansas is growing and welcomes newbies at all levels. The Arkansas Circus Arts studio came about, she said, because the community needed a safe, dedicated space to teach and practice.

"We get hired for a lot of corporate events, everything from nightclubs to corporate fundraisers to 5Ks [and] private parties," Rule said.

The troupe stages its own productions, including a fire-centered performance called "Enchanted Flame," which was held at Little Rock's Wildwood Park for the Arts in June. The troupe's circus arts classes at the studio cost from $10 to $25, or $60 for a private lesson.

Rule said that many of those who try a circus class at the studio are tired of their normal workouts. "A lot of the common denominator is people who are bored with a regular gym, or they're just not motivated with going to 10 Fitness," she said. "They would rather come in and kind of hang around and do playful things where they are still getting a really good workout and working on their flexibility. There's more of a community supportive environment."

One of those who found her way to classes at ACA is Sarah Haley, 23. Haley got into circus in Fayetteville, and was excited to find a large and supportive community of practitioners at ACA when she moved to Little Rock a year and a half ago. She is passionate about aerial silks and the lyra, which is a large metal hoop that hangs from the ceiling and is used for suspended acrobatics. Never having been a fan of going to the gym, Haley said she has seen her core and upper body strength grow tremendously since starting classes at ACA.

"I'm much stronger," Haley said. "I had zero upper body strength when I started. I couldn't climb the silks, which is one of the first, basic things you learn. I couldn't do that my first time. Now, it seems like second nature. So you'll get really strong doing it."

While some might worry about the danger of learning to perform circus tricks, Haley said keeping things as safe as possible is always a priority at ACA. "Anything you do can be dangerous," Haley said, "but Camille is really good about spotting. ... You learn moves close to the ground and there are always mats out. If you do happen to fall, you're going to land on a mat. You learn the moves when you're closer to the ground, and when you're comfortable you can go higher and try them."

Haley recently participated in her first stage performance, something she might not have even thought about before taking classes at ACA. "It's a little nerve-racking, but it's also really exciting," she said. "It's really fun to share your passion with other people."

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