By Dwain Hebda // Photos Courtesy of Arkansas Circus Arts
In the timeless classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll paints a technicolor tale of a young girl who escapes her humdrum life by sliding down a rabbit hole into a world of fantasy and imagination. There, she meets colorful characters and has oversized experiences that turn everything she knows on its head.
It’s not unlike what you find at Arkansas Circus Arts, a riotous workout enclave tucked into an otherwise nondescript industrial park where North Little Rock melts into Maumelle. Boldly colored mats cover the floor, broad 20-foot swaths of brightly-hued silk hang from the ceiling and music floats throughout.
“Hi! Over here!” says a voice as you enter. Camille Rule, co-owner, is hanging upside down in the middle of the space, entwined in the dangling fabric, burning off some excess energy. With little more than a shrug, she loosens herself and drops to the floor, light as a cat.
Rule founded the gym in 2013 with business partner Rebeka Poland as a creative means of promoting fitness, flexibility and general body-mind soundness. Contrary to the name, the business does not just cater to performers, although they certainly train their share of dancers, cheerleaders and gymnasts. And there are no fire eaters, sword swallowers or lion tamers to be found, either.
What you will find is a well-trained, highly conditioned staff leading classes and clients from age 3 to 63 and older through the marvels of body-weight training unlike anything else you may have tried.
“I danced my whole life; I have a background in classical ballet and dance,” Rule says. “And then I stopped doing that and started hula-hooping for fun and fitness. That was the first circus discipline that I learned, and that was kind of the gateway drug.
“I was inspired by training spaces that I had seen like this in Colorado and on the West Coast, and I also became inspired by different yoga studios in the community. That’s kind of where the idea started, I guess.”
Arkansas Circus Arts’ first home was downtown in a Main Street space that doubled as a Crossfit box. It was a combination Rule and Poland made work, but it wasn’t what the owners ultimately had in mind for their company.
“With some Crossfit gyms, they don’t do A/C or heat. You just train your body to deal with the weather or whatever,” says Heather Sanders, studio manager. “The Main Street one had, like, just one A/C window unit. For those of us that have been here a long time, having heat and air now is like, ‘Oooooohhhh.’”
As challenging as those conditions were, it wasn’t easy to find the right replacement space to move into. Even after three years here, Rule still looks around the roughly 3,000-square-foot gym with a note of disbelief.
“I never thought that we would end up in Maumelle, technically North Little Rock,” she says. “We obviously needed a very unique space; we ideally needed exposed beams. We needed a warehouse-style building that’s not disgusting on the inside and totally industrial that hopefully has some heat and A/C for the most extreme times of year.
“In Little Rock, the industrial spaces that were available were either very bare, truly industrial spaces that would have taken a lot of work to put in heat and air to make it feel kind of comfortable and a place where you’d want to walk around barefoot, because most of our classes are done barefoot.
“Or, they were in a seedy area, and we’re like, ‘Well, do parents and kids want to come here at 7 o’clock at night? Probably not.’ So those are challenges that we faced.”
The move to the new location cost them some existing clients, but diehards followed them across the river. Gradually, the gym has attracted new clients from the community, an effort boosted by popular media.
“When we started this back in 2013, it definitely took a lot longer to explain to people what we were offering, to get them to understand they could come in and take a class, and they didn’t need to be strong or flexible right off the bat,” Rule says.
“But over the years, with the help of social media, Instagram, movies like The Greatest Showman, people see things like aerial yoga or these yoga swings that you see on the internet. I think that has created a niche for this.
“People come to us, and they’re like, ‘I’ve seen that on Ellen,’ or ‘I saw Jennifer Lopez do pole in the Super Bowl.’ So, definitely in the past 8 to 10 years, this has become more mainstream, but still not as understood as gymnastics, dance, your regular fitness gyms.”
Arkansas Circus Arts’ clientele is an eclectic mix from a wide variety of backgrounds. The majority are female, ages 25 to 35, but men make up an appreciable segment of the membership.
“Acrobatics tend to be something that men gravitate towards,” Rule says. “We have a few men in our pole class. Men are really great pole artists, actually — they’re so buff and strong. And then we have a few male aerialists in training.”
Training occurs primarily in class settings although there are open gym times and private lessons. There’s also a curriculum for kids as young as 3 in the form of classes and summer camps. And because COVID-19 has put most of the gym’s programs on hold, there is now a new list of virtual workouts and online training options, available via the gym’s website.
“We’re not here to produce high-level performers,” Sanders says. “We can do that, but we’re here to provide you with this opportunity and help you reach your goals, whether that’s fitness or whether that’s performing in art productions or things like that. We just want to make that possible for people. We really try to express that when people are here for the first time; it’s not about how strong you are or what age you are or what level you’re at, it’s much more about what you want out of this.
“I’ve pretty much taught every type of student at this point — your squirrely kids, your strong kids, your flexible kids, kids that pick it up right away. And then your adults, you’ve got your timid adults and your overeager adults. I love the variety in the teaching.”
A big component of the gym is its party and production business segments. The gym hosts birthday and bachelorette parties and provides entertainment for corporate and gala events. Class members and staff are cast in several live productions throughout the year, which are open to the public. Both segments provide a creative outlet as well as serve as effective marketing for the gym.
“Last year I think we did six shows — family-friendly shows and 18-and-up shows.” Rule says. “We had one at Sway nightclub, that was a Valentine’s Day show. We did a show at Lake Willastein Park that was our student show. We did a Fire and Glow show at Wildwood Park for the Arts; we did a Halloween show at Argenta Community Theater. And then our big holiday production is the Nutcracker Circus.
“[Productions] get families involved; it brings families out together to watch our adults perform in a production which inspires people and definitely spreads the word about what we’re doing.”
For each nontraditional training apparatus seen here, there are three or four that the gym has yet to introduce. Like every gym, Arkansas Circus Arts has space restrictions that prohibit offering everything, and unlike traditional gyms, there’s also the challenge of finding qualified instructors. All trainers have been certified in their respective disciplines — a task that’s replicated with each new training piece that’s introduced.
“The challenge with doing trapeze or doing some of the things that we haven’t taught or aren’t as popular is we don’t necessarily have the instructor,” Rule says. “We want to ensure our students are really safe and that we’re providing high-quality instruction. It’s more important for us to provide something that’s valuable to our students than just offer it because it sounds good.”
Talking about the classes and athletes who are currently on hiatus, Rule and Sanders get a far-off look on their faces. COVID-19 is not only hampering the business, but it’s separated them from their clients who are much closer to family than customers. They’re eager to get back to training familiar friends and coaxing new Alices into Wonderland.
“The most common thing you get is, ‘Oh I could never do that.’ I always follow it up with, ‘Everyone can do it,’” Sanders says. “I love telling people that we have people in their 50s and 60s here. It is my mission to tell everyone that they can do it, because they can.”