By Marjorie Rice
It’s Sunday afternoon at Circus School of Arizona, and four students are tackling the “Silky Beast.” The apparatus hangs 24 feet in the air, combining a Lyra hoop, trapeze bar and long swaths of colorful silk draped to the floor.
The women “climb” the silk, wrapping it around their legs and feet and pulling themselves high into the air where they pirouette and do splits and flips in unison, all with toes pointed, arms outstretched with balletic grace and—despite a few grunts and groans—smiles.
Their class is an exhilarating combination of art, strength and flexibility, a heady alternative for people who want to work out while having a great time.
“It is so much fun,” says student Amy Melbye. “It’s totally addictive. Absolutely, it’s the best fitness regimen you can imagine. I’m almost 40 and I’m in the best shape of my life. It’s a total body workout and it’s great for your core and upper body, where women have a lot of struggles. Every time I choose a new class level, it’s exciting.”
Melbye has been taking circus classes for about two years, which included a three-month break to get over an injury. While the women in this Sunday’s group class have a year or more of experience and perform impressive flips, splits and combination routines high up on the apparatus, even beginners can pick up skills fairly quickly, according to Melbye.
“My advice to people who think they’re not strong enough is to just start,” she says. “You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can start doing basic tricks.”
Rachel Stegman founded Circus School of Arizona (CSA) in 2007 in the Airpark. The venture began with just one teacher, Stegman, and about 10 students. Today the school operates from Fitness Dynamics Studio off the Greenway-Hayden Loop with six teachers and about 400 active customers, ranging in age from kids to people in their 60s.
At age 57, seasoned athlete Kristy Rae Ingebo of Phoenix figured she’d waited long enough to get in on the circus act. “I think it’s the thrill of being able to do something normal people can’t do, something really extraordinary,” she says. “I’m a cross-trainer and I do a lot of stuff. I teach martial arts, do Zumba, belly dancing, teach yoga, do hiking and a lot of mountain biking. This I really love, and I feel like this is the time of my life to do it.”
Scottsdale Realtor and yoga teacher Charlie Allred caught the bug after seeing a friend’s online videos of class. “She’d be flying on the silks and doing crazy stuff, flipping and dropping and I thought, ‘I’ve got to do that.’ I didn’t think it was this hard, but it’s totally fun.”
Circle of Classes
CSA offers a wide spectrum of classes, including this day’s work on the silks. There is also instruction in static trapeze, ropes and doubles trapeze and partner acrobatics. “We offer workshops on skills like handstands, hand balancing and contortion,” Stegman says. “Right now there isn’t anyone locally we can hire to teach that, but when we have special events and bring in artists, we have them stay an extra day to teach the workshops.”
Today’s circus is more than aerials and acrobatics, Stegman says, and so is her school.
“Circus is circle, all-encompassing, so we bring in a variety of local specialists who have strengths I don’t have. For example, Brian Foley, who taught clown classes at ASU, has taught clowning and plate-spinning for us. Todd Bailey, who has experience on Broadway, does a lot of choreography and dance classes for us.”
While her school has grown, profitability still is a struggle.
“My current location is conducive to aerial classes, but I’m limited to having just one activity going at once,” Stegman says. “Also, in aerials, you have to have small ratios—one teacher to six students—which means class fees are higher than for other activities, where you can have a one-to-15 ratio.
Stegman hopes this will improve in the next year, when new after-school and summer camp programs kick in.
“Summer camps are the biggest source of revenue for most circus schools,” she says. “I’m doing a summer camp program this year with Rebound Gymnastics West in Scottsdale, but it’s only one day a week.”
That will change next year when CSA operates a summer camp in partnership with Scottsdale Gymnastics in its new 10,000-square-foot facility.
“They have a new building with 24-foot ceilings,” Stegman says. “There’s enough room for us to have several classes going at once, with kids doing tumbling, aerials, mini-trampoline, juggling, dance and other activities throughout the space.”
Stegman also is planning an after-school program for next year with Tesseract School.
Traditional marketing and advertising has been a challenge, Stegman says, because cash flow is limited.
“I haven’t had a lot of money to put into it, but when we’ve had events with places like Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and Arizona Foothills magazine, we’ve done them at a reduced rate in return for a promotional package,” she says. “We also get a lot of free media exposure from events we’ve done at reduced rates for area nonprofits.”
Entertainment for Hire
Stegman also partners with Gregangelo & Velocity Arts and Entertainment, an arm of the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, to provide circus and other acts for corporate events. On some occasions, her company rents costumes from Gregangelo’s extensive collection. For larger events, Stegman and Gregangelo work together, sometimes bringing in artists from San Francisco.
The events include a lot more than circus acts, Stegman says. “We’re an entertainment provider, and that includes circus, musicians, dancers, films, fiber optics and interactive galleries. We’re a turnkey operation, delivering our clients’ vision from concept to completion.”
Clients have included Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale Pubic Art/Scottsdale Cultural Council, Tempe Festival of the Arts and the Glendale Glitter & Glow Block Party, along with private corporations, medical groups and law offices.
Stegman, who hopes to one day own her own facility in the Airpark, is working to expand the school’s services for kids.
“I’d like to have a ‘Social Circus’ element offered by CSA, which we have already started to develop with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona,” she says. “We also want to bring circus to at-risk youth and bring together kids from different backgrounds.”
Stegman is looking for sponsors to provide scholarships for kids in nonprofit programs, and to help fund outreach to classes for domestic violence victims, women recovering from breast cancer and others.
“Nothing builds self-esteem more than being able to climb a rope and do tricks,” Stegman says. “It makes you feel superhuman.”
Super Kid Stuff
She should know. Circus has entranced Stegman most of her life. After trying an array of performance-oriented classes as a kid—from tap and ballet to ice skating—Stegman found her calling at age 9 during a family vacation. The Club Med offered a circus program, and she discovered her petite build and fearlessness were a perfect match for the genre’s unique challenges. The attraction never waned, even as she entered her turbulent teens.
“I was still trying to find myself, and nothing ever clicked like the circus did,” she says. “When I was 16, I was in what my parents called an ‘alien stage’ and getting into trouble. They sent me to a performing arts camp in the Poconos in New York for the entire summer school break.”
As fate would have it, the camp’s faculty included members of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“I’d ditch the other activities and show up on their doorstep, trying to learn more,” she says. “That was my calling. They let me do some things they weren’t letting other campers do, like knife throwing. I really learned a lot in those months.”
But with no circus training available in Scottsdale, where she grew up, Stegman had to put her circus aspirations on hold.
It took six more years, including an associate’s degree from Scottsdale Community College and studies at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., before Stegman was able to pursue her circus dream full-time. Part of her journey was moving to San Francisco to train and perform with Gregangelo Herrera and other coaches at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts (now called Circus Center, San Francisco). She also trained and taught at Trapeze Arts in Oakland, Calif.
“I have students in circuses all over the world, including Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ in Las Vegas,” Stegman says. “The performers who portray the twins in that show were students of mine.”
Meanwhile, Stegman and her husband wanted to start a family, and they moved back home to Scottsdale’s McCormick Ranch.
“Most of my husband’s and my families are here,” she says. “I wanted to start my own business, and I knew I’d need family support.”
Today, with her school established and growing, Stegman juggles the demands of home, with two small children and her company. Her life’s a circus, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I have big-top dreams for Circus School of Arizona,” she says. “I envision a large facility where people of all backgrounds, ages, and levels can come to learn a wide variety of circus arts including flying trapeze, aerial acrobatics, tight rope/high wire, Chinese pole, ground acrobatics, contortion, clowning, juggling and more, as well as many forms of dance and other variety arts.
“I would love to see CSA reach the same status in the circus world as some of the other reputable schools in big cities across the U.S.”