Swing, Juggle, and Balance Your Way to Fitness at Atlanta’s Circus Arts Institute

Image: Shutterpal on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Did you ever dream of running off to join the circus? Walking the tightrope, the crowd silent in anticipation as the spotlight follows your every measured footstep? Maybe you envisioned yourself elegantly completing a flippy air somersault-thingie, caught mid-air by the strong arms of your aerial partner? Well, it’s not too late to turn those dreams into reality. Atlanta’s Circus Arts Institute teaches circus-style tricks and flips to kids and adults alike. Even better, their Circus Arts Therapy program utilizes circus skills to help people of all ages deal with emotional problems, self esteem issues, fear of heights, anxiety, behavioral issues, ADHD, learning difficulties, and more. WellATL goes under the big top with Circus Arts Institute Founder and Executive Director Carrie Heller.


Carrie Heller (in purple) works with a student on the balance board

We’ve seen the pics. Hanging upside-down from drapes looks like a death wish. Is this for the average Joe? What kind of skills do you need to try this?
You have to have a certain amount of experience and have reached a certain level of strength before you are allowed to hang upside-down from the aerial fabric; it does require a good bit of strength. But at the Circus Arts Institute, you’ll start low at the beginner level. Once you’ve gained experience and strength, you’ll be offered the opportunity to learn the higher-level tricks, like hanging-upside down from the aerial fabric. So yes, anyone can come to the Circus Arts Institute, including the average Joe.

When you say “circus,” some people immediately think “clowns.” Do you all teach the juggling and balloon animal stuff, too?
We do teach juggling, but no balloon animals. We actually do teach clowning sometimes in private lessons. Generally, we focus on aerial tricks, balancing tricks utilizing balance boards, and tight-wire walking.

You are, first and foremost, a therapist. How does the whole circus thing factor into emotional and mental health? Is the trapeze the new chaise lounge?
Clown on Trap 4x5
While working with children in my first job, I brought juggling scarves into the play therapy room and noticed therapeutic benefits, including but not limited to increased focus and attention. I later learned from my occupational therapy friends that “crossing the midline” activities, like juggling, were a good thing for brain balancing. Soon after, I founded Circus Camp and noticed more and more benefits — increased self esteem, improved focus, increased strength, coordination, and balance — not to mention teamwork and communication with peers, etc. Furthermore, when I invited families into my classes, I noticed them walking out after class hand-in-hand.

You’ve got to be pretty gutsy to swing from the rafters. Were you a fearless child, freaking your mom out by jumping out of the highest tree?
Yes, my mom fell to her knees from the bleachers when I did a cast out from the cloudswing, where I ended up dangling from my ankles from the swing.

You’ve called the ATL home since the 1980s. What are your favorite spots around town when you’re not walking the tightrope?
I love Farm Burger in Decatur as well as Yeah Burger in Virginia-Highland. I grew up playing tennis, so the tennis courts are another favorite spot. I also workout at the YMCA in East Lake and love to go hiking in the North Georgia Mountains, especially when I can find a waterfall to hike to. And I love going to Candler Park to swing on the swings there.

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