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Cabarrus Magazine

Hanging Around at Circus University

Jan 01, 2019 08:30AM ● By Jason Huddle

Hanging Around at Circus University

We’re not talking sitting in a classroom or being a spectator. We’re talking flying through the air with the greatest of ease…and a spotter.

Cirq-U – or Circus University – is the brainchild of Lori Kelley, official ringmaster. Starting out taking gymnastics at the age of four, she laughs that she was booted out of ballet.

“I grew up all over the place because my father was in the Navy,” she shares. “I continued on with it throughout our travels, and then we lived in Utah for a while and I picked up some other fun stuff, like baton, horseback riding and figure skating. They all kind of tied in together because they’re related to balance.”

After her family settled in the Charlotte area in 1979 – she now lives in Kannapolis – Kelley kept on competing in gymnastics. That is, until she often found herself to be the only one older than 18 standing on the winners’ podium.

“I said, ‘Why am I competing? What do I have to prove? There’s got to be something else that I can do.’ Then a friend of mine invited me to a festival called the PlayThink Movement & Arts Festival in Berea, Ky. I said, ‘What on Earth is that?’ It’s a circus, flow, and art and creativity festival. It was wonderful and I’d never done anything to do with circus arts before.”

While traditional circuses are having to re-vamp their acts minus large animals like elephants,

lions and tigers – or they’re disappearing altogether – circus arts is still a skill in high demand thanks to entertainment companies like Canada’s Cirque du Soleil and acrobatic performances on Broadway.

In fact, according to, “To the layperson, it might seem as if circus is a dying art – but to those who still work in the ring, to circus educators, directors and producers, things look quite different. Recreational and pre-professional circus participation and social circus initiatives are at an all-time high.”

Nik Wallenda, who’s found his own fame as a daredevil on the highwire, comes from generations of family circus performers.

“Circus is an age-old art form,” he says. “My family started in the 1780s – that’s over 200 years, and Ringling was 146 years old. So, circus will continue on no matter what. There are very few, if any, circuses in the United States, including the biggest there are or were, that are still primitive in the way they run their circus. Cirque du Soleil has been incredibly successful because they have adapted to the times in every sense of the word.”

That adaptation comes in the form of contemporary, artistic storytelling as a theme to gravity-defying theatre.

Many in the circus industry see history as one obstacle in the U.S. moving on to – and embracing – these new circus arts. Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey has left an indelible, stereotypical impression on the minds of those who remember big circus tent shows.

However, it’s time to move on – and up – and after taking part in PlayThink, Kelley attended a national convention of circus entertainers. Still, nothing really suited what she envisioned doing. “What I wanted to do was build a community circus,” she says.

Tenacity paid off because Cirq-U is now housed within a former cotton warehouse at 284 Ann Street in the Gibson Mill neighborhood of Concord.

“It’s great; we can keep adding and adding. And there’s another small bit we’re hoping to get because it has 50-foot ceilings.”

Kelley refers to her current 12,000 square feet of space, plus the 18,000 square feet she’s taking on. “It’s raw space right now but we plan to unveil it in time for summer camp in June. It’s come a long way from 1,200 square feet,” she says.

What sets Cirq-U apart from other circuses is its performers. “A lot of the people that come to us are fighting some sort of different ability – I don’t like to say disability – or they’ve been marginalized by other sports. If they go to the gym and someone is leering, they’re self-conscious and don’t want to go back,” Kelley explains. “What we do is, we take what is physical fitness and training and we turn that into something beautiful that is an art form that you can take out into the community.

“We perform at the Mint Museum, Discovery Place, Joy Prom, the Sandbox Prom, Autism Speaks, local parades, and we’re also an Autism-friendly sport. We have many kids that are on the spectrum,” she adds. “We’ve also had kids with epilepsy that have been able to discontinue physical therapy. I dare you to pick autistic children or epileptic children out of our crowd of relatively able-bodied people.

“Most of the people that come to me, in whatever state they come to me – overweight or terrified to go upside down – I can have them ready to go out and do one of our ambient performances within three weeks. They’re properly matted, properly spotted, if they’re not comfortable bearing their weight, we have modifications we can make that do that for them.”

This speaks volumes to the benefits that parents see when their child uses muscles they didn’t know they have. The art infuses aerial yoga, acrobatics and gymnastics with aerial silks, the lyra (aerial hoop), static and swinging trapeze, tightrope, slackline (similar to a tightrope), juggling, acrobatics, the unicycle...and Kelley has plans to add an indoor flying trapeze in 2019.

“We have the three major classifications of aerial apparatus, which are the lyra, the silks and the hoop. We have a couple of interesting aerial apparatus. We only have one of each of these because they’re kind of strange but they’re still fun to play with and are even more fun to perform. We have the aerial cube, which is an aerial box that’s made out of steel. It’s basically four trapeze bars and tubes, all welded together. And we have just gotten a Corde Lisse (vertically hanging rope) and Spanish web (performance using apparatus similar to Corde Lisse).

Participants aged five to 12 enroll in Cirque 101. “Every week you will learn three different varieties of activities. There is no pressure and everyone progresses at their own pace. You move into your next skillset when you feel comfortable,” Kelley explains. “The 101 class allows both adults and children to explore many different aspects of circus arts, later discovering which one best complements them and then being able to focus on that particular art form as a performance.”

Those who are older than 12 and want to continue in the circus go into Cirque 101 Adult. “It’s a university, so it goes on and on. You don’t get a degree, but we teach everything and learning is a process. We’re always learning, always evolving, adding new equipment, always terrifying ourselves,” Kelley laughs.” A lot of people that came to us for fitness purposes have stuck with us long-term.”

Taking Cirque 101 for about six

months typically is enough preparation for a person to then perform a specialty. “We’ve got a couple girls that are trapeze ninjas, and when we go perform that’s what they do. I’m really good on the lyra and on the sidewinding tightrope, so if I have to perform, which I don’t like to do, but if I have to, those are the things I gravitate towards,” Kelley says.

Stretching for 15 minutes is first when attending a Cirq-U class. Then the class breaks up into groups, which work on three different circus activities for 20 minutes each. “Two are aerial and one is ground-based,” Kelley notes. “It gives you a full body workout that kind of sneaks up on you. You don’t really know what you’ve done until you wake up the next morning and look for the truck that hit you. But it’s a good sore.”

Kelley emphasizes that Cirq-U is free-willed. Participants come when they can and pay as they go; there’s no monthly commitment or fees. “I offer a lot of free practices because we’re geared towards performance,” she adds.

Cirq-U is also a non-profit organization, one reason why Kelley is able to keep pricing low. “We’re all over the spectrum. We’re going to start a parent and child class for kids three and under; we have a four- and five-year-old class right now. We have a home school PE program, which is available for $5 a class during the day. And your first evening class is free!”

In addition, tickets for Tundra, Cirq-U’s Winter Cirq Opera, are on sale. At $5 each, all proceeds go toward Kelley’s homeschool program fund.

With a cast of 65 performers, Tundra takes place January 25 and 26 at 7:00pm at Cirq-U.

If you’d like to join this 52-year-old mother of three, grandmother of five and ringmaster for an afternoon or evening at the circus, contact her at [email protected], call 704-743-8021 or visit

Article by: Kim Cassell

Photos Courtesy: Michael A. Anderson Photography

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