Physical Strength and Powerful Community

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A career or hobby in circus is not an escape but rather a way of life. In the case of Kelly Jo Chartier, the founder of Pigtown’s In the Dark Circus Arts (ITDCA) it was her plan C. In 2007, while getting her master’s in marine science at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, she decided on a whim to drive three hours to a Chapel Hill yoga studio to take a class in aerial silks. For the former ballerina and long-time amateur hula hooper, which Chartier describes as the “gateway drug” to circus performing, perhaps this was destiny. Over the last decade, Chartier has built a circus community in Baltimore.

After graduation, the Westminster, MD, native returned to Baltimore to tend bar and work at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD. Chartier posted flyers around town letting people know that she was teaching aerial silks, first in Wyman Park and then later at Mobtown Ballroom, a dance studio and event space run by Michael Seguin and Sarah Sullivan in the secularized Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, where the studio is still located today.

In 2012, facing a lack of job prospects, Chartier decided to audition to attend the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, VT, a circus boot camp of sorts that presented a new career path forward. Life in Vermont was “circus all day, all night,” she says. “You eat and you breathe circus.” When she returned to Baltimore in 2013, Chartier expanded the offerings of her school to include other circus disciplines such as the German wheel and trapeze, in addition to the aerial silks she was already teaching. In the beginning, Chartier taught everything herself—24 hour-long classes a week, a schedule she now describes as insane. Over time, she was able to hire coaches who had trained elsewhere and performed on cruise ships.


The term “circus arts” refers to many kinds of performing acts, but the three major aerial ones taught at ITDCA by the coaches (pictured here), Angelynn Khoo, Patrice Woodard, and Thomas Martin, are aerial silks, which involve wrapping one’s extremities with a piece of silk that hangs from either a rig or the ceiling; single-point trapeze, which involves a suspended bar that performers can sit on and hang from; and lyra, or aerial hoop, which is a fifty-pound steel circle suspended like a trapeze from which performers can hang and shift themselves.

I first became aware of ITDCA when attending a student showcase in 2018, where I watched with a mixture of dazzlement and terror as a good friend of mine hoisted herself up the length of the aerial silks, some twenty or so feet into the air, only to twist, drop and climb back up again multiple times in her three-minute performance. The combination of athleticism and artistry was striking, the venue of the old church providing an air of calm to what looked, at least for this casual observer, like impending brain injury. My friend was fine that night and continues to perform with ITDCA, always pushing her body to become stronger in the pursuit of more and more complicated combinations. I’ve attended more performances since then, and while the feelings of concern never leave me, I can’t think of another art form in which the performer looks so uninhibited while simultaneously exerting so much strength.

Chartier has noticed circus classes becoming much more popular in recent years as people have sought creative workouts outside of a typical gym. ITDCA student Martha Robichaud explains that she was attracted to the physical and mental challenge it presents, and she “immediately loved the mixture of strength and grace it required.” For Chartier, her coaches, and their students, it’s clear that circus arts are more than an intersection of fitness and art—they’re also about fellowship. Chartier sees her school as a place where “people can feel good about themselves along with doing positive things for their minds and bodies.” She also believes that anyone can learn circus. “People ask me all the time, ‘I weigh X, Y, Z—am I going to be able to do this?’” she says. “And I tell them, ‘Yes, you can do this, absolutely. It’s just the road for you to get wherever you want to go is different than somebody else’s, and everyone starts at a different place.’”


Chartier relishes the element of watching her students build confidence and grow to accomplish physical tasks well beyond their earliest goals. The studio is built on recreation—not competition—and as a result, students help each other become better performers. At an October class I observed, I had trouble picking out the coach immediately because everyone was giving one another feedback and offering suggestions. When asked about what attracted them to join, students list different backgrounds and interests, but when asked why they’ve stayed, they all say the same thing—for the supportive creative community.

Student Jenny Dang says that after attending her first aerial class, she felt empowered. “My arms and fingers were so sore and I was shaking on my drive home,” she recalls. “I had been able to get ONE INCH off the ground, and I felt so encouraged by Kelly Jo and the other students.” Dang says the creative company has helped her to overcome physical injuries and difficulties in life, thanks to the “insanely supportive and authentic coaches and students. We have created an amazing community which encourages freedom, belonging, and creativity.”

It’s a common misconception that circus performers are all former dancers and gymnasts, but most of the students at the studio had no prior performance or notable athletic experience before taking it up. “The people we train with all understand the same language of movement,” explains fabrics coach and longtime studio member Patrice Woodard. “Whenever I come to the studio, I feel stronger and more confident. To do this work takes bravery, authenticity, growth, curiosity, determination, and a sense of humor. It builds confidence, trust, openness, and tolerance for discomfort. I have learned to be patient with myself—there is no one singular definition of perfection.”

It was challenging for the business to close from March to August for Covid-19, but the studio reopened this fall with extensive safety precautions in place and smaller class sizes. Mobtown Ballroom, which typically offers a full schedule of swing dance classes, remains closed and is surviving on a mixture of PPP loans and small business grants.


According to Chartier, new students expecting to quickly acquire the strength and physical power required to do circus arts often feel frustrated. She reminds them that failing at something, at least at first, takes some getting acclimated to. “You have to remember what it feels like to suck really bad at something,” says Chartier, adding that many of us haven’t elected to do something we are bad at since childhood. However, most push past the initial struggle when they realize that the task in front of them is doable but will just take more time and effort. “I really have not had anybody that I can’t coach,” Chartier says. “I’ve had some people who don’t want to be coached. But for people who really want to do it, usually there’s a pretty good success rate.”

For coach and student Sarah Shellem, “Aerial arts is not only a hobby for me, but a passion and a way of life.” Shellem says she suffers from anxiety and imposter syndrome but loves to perform and that circus makes her feel empowered, strong, and proud of herself. “I also love the ability to choreograph my own performance or a student’s performance because it gives me a creative outlet,” she says. “Practicing circus arts has taught me not to be afraid of being my authentic self, of choosing the nontraditional. To believe in myself. To not give up, to persist. To trust in the process.”


This story is from Issue 10: Power,

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