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Gem City Cirque shares their love and passion for aerial performance art

Co-founder Angela Thomas poses for an aerial photo.
Gem City Cirque
Co-founder Angela Thomas poses for an aerial photo.

Discover a studio in Miamisburg, where a local group of aerial artists train and share their love of aerial silks.

In 1959 an article in a small French newspaper reported that a circus school student had presented the most incredible act using a long piece of fabric.

Over the last decade the Aerial Silks, as it’s now known, has seen a surge in popularity thanks to companies like Cirque du Soleil, and performance artists like Pink. It’s even showing up in fitness classes.

At a studio in Miamisburg, a local group of aerial artists train and share their love of this performance art form with others.

It can be challenging to navigate the steep flights of stairs in the former historic hotel at 7 East Central Street, but the reward is a beautiful open space on the third floor with 17 foot high ceilings. One wall is lined with mirrors, and on the other side, hang rows of long silky fabric draped from rings mounted in the ceiling.

This is the Dayton Ballroom Center, which is used as a practice space by the Gem City Cirque. “We practice aerial arts,” Kaitlin Kenny, one of the founding members, said. “The short version of being an aerial artist is - if it hangs, we will find a way to perform on it.

Kaitlin discovered the aerial arts by accident when she was living in Florida.

“I was looking for belly dancing, of all things. I couldn’t find anything where I was at the time, but there was this studio that did aerial silks,” Kaitlin recalled. “And I took a look, and I’m like - hey, I’m afraid of heights, let’s try it. I was in love from my very first class.”

 Kaitlin Kenny of the Gem City Cirque says the idea for the group was born out of the pandemic.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Kaitlin Kenny of the Gem City Cirque says the idea for the group was born out of the pandemic.

The Gem City Cirque was born out of the pandemic. In the summer of 2020 Kaitlin and her friend Angela Thomas were just wanting to practice, but everything was shut down - all the gyms, all the studios were shut down. So they put a mobile rig up in Kaitlin’s backyard.

“I would see my neighbors kind of peeking out through the window wondering what on earth it was we were doing over there,” Kaitlin said. “And, it just kind of became the neighborhood thing, and we’re, like, 'There might be something to this.' ”

So they formed an entertainment group which took off, and started booking shows around the Miami Valley at area festivals and private events. Since then they’ve connected with other artists in the area who have also been looking for an opportunity to perform, and they formed an aerial co-op.

“We also have people who are more ground based specialists, so they’re fire dancers, or fan dancers, or something to that effect,” Kaitlin said. “My favorite to perform on is dance trapeze. So it’s not the big swinging one you’re thinking of, but it is a single hanging trapeze that you can do a bunch of moves on. I’m not the most flexible performer, but I am very strong, and that apparatus lends itself to strength-based moves. It’s very graceful, it’s very empowering.”

Malaki Woodward is the owner of the Fire and Ice Aerial Arts , which operates here at the Dayton Ballroom Center. She got hooked when she was 16. Malaki was influenced by Rebekah Leach who had just come out with a book series that was one of the first aerial training manuals. Malaki performs with the Gem City Cirque, when she’s not teaching classes.

“I teach six to however old,” she said. “I have a seventy-five year old currently. She doesn’t go too high, usually she stays, like, 2 feet off the ground, but she’s definitely able to do quite a bit of stuff.”

Kaitlin places a thick gymnastic mat underneath a long length of gray silk fabric, attached to a metal ring in the 17 foot high ceiling. Kaitlin asked Malaki to put on some music in the background.

“So I can not think too hard about what I’m doing,” she said. “I work a lot of ambience - which means I don’t have a particular choreography in mind - I’m just kind of improving.”

Kailtin Kenny demonstrating the meat hook maneuver.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Kailtin Kenny demonstrating the meat hook maneuver.

Kaitlin warms up by stretching on the silks and then goes through some poses. Hanging upside down by one hand from what looks like a giant hula hoop called a lyra, she twists her body into an arc - one leg crossed at a 90 degree angle over the other, pointing up to the ceiling.

It looks… really complicated.

“So, meat hook is called a meat hook because of the position that the body ends up in, and this is one that it’s got a strength base, which is why I like it,” she said hanging from the lyra. “It takes a while to learn. That is not a beginner move. It gets really squeezy on your side here, so you gotta learn to be comfortable with that.”

Kaitlin also teaches classes with Fire and Ice.

“I teach beginners here in the studio. My favorite beginners are students that don’t have a fitness background, and they are not sure they can do this, but they want to try it,” she said. “Watching their confidence grow, and they’re like - oh, I can do this - it’s just the coolest thing.”

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.