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Sky Candy Austin offers circus-style workout

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Not everyone who swings through the rafters at Sky Candy Austin dreams of one day performing under the big top.

Some, it turns out, sign up for the group's classes in circus arts for the workout. And they get a good one.

Drop by the cavernous, un-air-conditioned warehouse it shares with two furniture makers in East Austin almost any day and you'll find athletes gracefully cavorting on fluttering, silky sashes, ropes, bars and rings suspended from the ceiling.

Sky Candy's founders say they're tapping into a growing trend. In New York, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Boulder, people are happily channeling Cirque du Soleil in classes that teach them how to swing on a trapeze and dance on long, flowing columns of fabric.

Here in Austin, Trapeze Austin teaches classes in trapeze and silks, while Blue Lapis Light focuses on silks. Volve, a Meetup group for people with circus talents, has staged impromptu gatherings outside the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

At Sky Candy, which opened in July 2010, anybody can sign up for a class in ropes (or "corde lisse"), aerial hammock, the static trapeze or lyra, a sort of steel hoop that hangs from a rope. Classes in stilt walking and juggling might eventually join the lineup.

"We saw a gap," says Winnie Hsia, one of the founding members of Sky Candy Austin. "Austin had places that just taught trapeze or just taught silks, but there was no place that taught multiple apparatuses. We're more circus-oriented."

Eager to hone a new skill set that involves swinging through the air hanging from my knees, I have decided to pop in for the Intro to Aerial Skills class.

As fans buzz in the background in an attempt to keep the sweat to a minimum (a move to an air-conditioned warehouse is planned for early fall), students Meghan Miller, 26; Caroline Coblar, 26; Macy Nelms, 10; and I warm up with some yoga stretches and abdominal exercises led by Hsia.

"It's a great workout, but it doesn't feel like you're trapped in a gym," Hsia says. "You're doing something that's beautiful, a work of art. You're not a hamster on a wheel."

She unfurls navy and black strips of silky material tethered to the ceiling. She loops the material through her fingers, wraps it around her ankles and daintily pulls herself up and down the billowing mass.

"You're just going to pull yourself up," she explains from 15 feet up, and then slides gracefully back down to terra firma.

One by one, we try it.

Coblar grabs the silks, cocoons her feet in fabric and prepares to climb. She twirls slowly in place, looking a little perplexed.

"So you've got the right idea," Hsia says. "You want to bend your knees to your chest with each climb."

"It's hard," Coblar says. But soon she conquers the aerial climb.

I try next. After a few hesitations, I waddle up the silks. I feel like one of those German toys, a tiny wooden mountaineer clinging to a string. When you pull the twine, the toy scuttles upward.

It's getting back down that's tricky. I ease my grip, but the friction heats my hands and feet as I sink downward.

We learn a few basic skills, including the single leg lock. Then we try the mermaid, a horizontal pose. But while Hsia looks like a graceful water maiden dangling sideways from a fluttering strand of seaweed, we look more like dead beetles stuck in spider webs.

Next it's on to the rope, a wrist-thick snake hanging from the ceiling. It's rougher and not quite as pretty, but easier to climb.

Then we try the trapeze. I feel like a kid on monkey bars as we hook our knees over the bar, hang upside down and use our abs to hoist ourselves into the sitting position.

Except my abs are quaking. Hsia notices, and tells me it takes a while to build those stabilizing core muscles.

Miller's getting into it, too. She pops off the trapeze grinning. "That's my favorite," she says.

I like the lyra best. I feel like the woman in the moon, as I perch sideways on the hula hoop-sized metal ring.

I quickly learn that it takes a lot of trust in your body to, say, dangle upside down from a lyra. There's no room for worrying about whether your hands will slip or your quad muscles will give out, plummeting you to the mat beneath the apparatus.

As we untangle ourselves, Andy Agne, 40, a former dancer and gymnast from Germany and another of the group's co-founders (Chelsea Laumen is the third), scampers up the rope by simply stepping up it, the rope wedged between his toes. Ouch!

"I always wanted to run away with the circus," he says.

And that's what some of Sky Candy's customers have in mind. Most students are in their 20s or 30s, although the youngest is 8 and a few are in their 60s. Most, but not all, are female. A handful are hoping the foundation they've gained at Sky Candy will spawn a career.

But for our rookie class, it's about fun and exercise.

"It was way more of a workout than I thought it would be," Coblar says as we wrap up. "It uses all the muscle groups. ... You're working out without knowing it."

"It looks a lot easier than it is," Miller concurs. "It was definitely a distraction as opposed to hard-core boot camp."

Macy, 10, likes the silks best. I'm not sure, but she might be contemplating a future with Ringling Bros.

"That's what I was afraid of," chuckles her mother, Lynn Williamson, after watching Macy sprint up the rope, flip upside down on the lyra and execute a perfect mermaid.

Meanwhile, I'm rubbing my red, slightly rope-burned hands and feet.

Maybe I should opt for clown school instead.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

If you go

Sky Candy is at 618-C Tillery St. Classes cost $20 for 90 minutes. An informal student show is planned for 6 p.m. Friday; admission is $5. The company will present ‘The Red Shoes,' based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, Aug. 19-21 at ND at 501 Studios, 501 N. Interstate 35. Information: http://skycandyaustin.com/