From contortionists to mermaids, devotees of circus arts discover confidence and strength at Liberty Station
Rema Raman is a 50-year-old medical researcher with an office job, but she’s flexible enough to do the splits.
At age 43, Anna Kataoka was inactive because of an injury. Now, at 48, she does contortionist moves, often with her horse as her partner.
Both women say their bodies are stronger and more flexible than they’ve ever been. They credit the circus performance skills they’ve learned over the past few years, such as contortions, handstands and balancing.
“It’s life-altering,” Raman said. “I’m doing things I never thought I could do. I feel strong and healthy and powerful, and that has been the most rewarding part of the whole thing.”
Hanna Denham, founder and owner of Art in Flexion in the Arts District at Liberty Station, believes that anyone can learn to perform many of the difficult cirque skills if they have dedication and the right training.
“We have students ages 12 to 65,” Denham said. “Just some of the reasons people want to learn the circus arts is to become performers, to have a better understanding of their body, to rehabilitate from injuries, to work on their alignment and to lose weight.”
Mastering the skills can improve everything from strength and flexibility to posture, breathing and self-confidence, according to Denham.
Raman started taking a flexibility class from Denham about five years ago, when she was in her mid-40s. She said age didn’t matter in her journey.
Much of that is because Denham, 30, is a medical exercise specialist, personal trainer and group fitness specialist in addition to knowing multiple circus arts and being able to perform them herself.
The courses are personalized based on the needs and goals of each student.
In addition to Denham, the instructors include Ken Taylor, Gabriel Lopez, Jess Ordon and Cheryl Lindley. They also work with physical therapists, chiropractors and massage therapists.
“All of our teachers are professional trainers and understand that every human body is different. We teach and educate our students in human anatomy, because you have to be very strong and understand every muscle in your body to do the crazy feats that we do,” Denham said.
“I’m a medical researcher, so I thought I knew a lot of what I was talking about until I began training,” Raman said. “I think it’s the approach that Coach Hanna takes — she teaches you every muscle, what it is and what it does, instead of just telling you.”
Retired from his career as a personal trainer and kung fu instructor, Taylor can still do the splits at age 68. He has worked with Denham the past 13 years.
Physically, he teaches students flexibility, strength and movement, he said. Mentally, he wants them to understand how to focus and push through small discomforts.
He said he takes pride in seeing potential in people and can “strengthen their bodies from their feet to the top of their heads.”
Kataoka described Taylor as “the biggest secret weapon of all.”
“He does splits, he tumbles and his knowledge of anatomy is incredible,” she said. “He is very educated about the body and muscles and makes sure we don’t injure ourselves and we do everything right. I’ve never met anyone like him.”
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When Kataoka signed up for a flexibility class in 2017, “strength training, proper muscle workout — it all sounded magical to me and I didn’t understand a word of it at first,” she said.
It didn’t help that Denham told her she would have to start from ground zero to learn the circus skills she craved.
It took six years of training, but Kataoka said it’s been worth it in many ways. When she first started, she had five inhalers; her doctor slashed that number to two in late January.
“First my strength and weight improved, then my breathing, my posture, the way I walk and the way I ride,” Kataoka said.
She added that what she does on horseback is quite challenging and very dangerous.
“I don’t do vaulting with my horse. I do contortion with him; I do splits on him and handstands — if he moves, my hip is getting broke,” she said. By continuing to improve her skills, she believes it gives both her and her horse purpose.
Ordon, originally a runner who wanted to begin stretching and improving her flexibility, started with Denham about five years ago. For the past two years, she has joined the team as a coach, teaching courses in abs and beginning-level contortion.
“Students can expect to work really hard, but if you thrive on setting goals and working toward them, it’s a great sense of reward,” Ordon said. “When you start from the inside out and make your body strong, you know you’re strong and it has value beyond just the training.”
One of Ordon’s favorite skills is performing as a mermaid. She said it took her a year of strength and posture training to prepare for becoming the mythical aquatic creature.
“The mermaid tails are very heavy, hard to put on and hard to move in. You have to keep your feet together inside the tail and you have to remember that mermaids don’t dog-paddle,” she said.
She added that it takes a lot of practice to learn to undulate underwater, all while holding your breath and smiling.
“It’s nice to be in the water and it’s fun to be pretty!” Ordon said. “And you have to be comfortable in the spotlight, because everyone takes your picture.”
Denham started training in circus arts at age 17 as a way to stay in shape.
“After six years of training, I went professional. Five years ago, I started my own school, Art in Flexion. In 2020, my coach Cheryl Lindley asked me to take over her company, Sophia Isadora Academy of Circus Arts, when she retired,” Denham said.
Denham’s school previously was located in Golden Hill; both schools now operate at Liberty Station. Together, they specialize in circus arts, including classes in flexibility, strength, mobility, handstanding, contortion and more. Advanced classes include chair balancing, balancing on a partner, stilt walking, fire performance, aerial arts and unicycling. And there are courses on being a mermaid.
Art in Flexion puts on a yearly show, and students who pass muster also can join full productions ranging from performances at festivals to company events. They will perform at Liberty Station in May.
Lindley, 63, is the artistic director for Denham’s companies.
“For me as an artist, the cirque arts are like theater; it combines the storytelling, the music, the costumes, the design and the technology,” Lindley said. “You’re asking yourself to do so much and you just grow so much with it.”
No matter what skill is involved, from stilt walking to fire spinning, Denham said nearly all performers deal with fear.
“The mental struggle is probably the hardest part,” she said. “Each student has to be ready for the mental journey — to calm down the tigers in the brain. Everything in your mind is telling you you can’t do this.”
Even seasoned professionals never totally conquer their fear, she said. “A part of your brain is always going to tell you that what you are doing is dangerous. You have to accept that and choose to think a different way.”
Her coaches and students agreed.
“It’s really about the balance between mental, physical and emotional and getting out of your own head,” Raman said. “And it can be applied to every part of your life. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Most of the classes are held in the evenings, with prices starting at $20 an hour. Classes are kept small, and private lessons are available.