Center of the Ring

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One after another, their bodies slip and weave in a fluid motion above and below a triple trapeze about 15 feet
off the ground. Their strength propels their glittering black and gold bodies through a blur of acrobatic twists and turns to gasps and applause from the audience at the TEDxUF 2019 Conference.

Among the performers are Corey Cheval and Eva Rowland from the Gainesville Circus Center, a studio and training center near Depot Park that specializes in the aerial arts. The center was started in 2007 by Cheval and was originally named S-Connection Aerial Arts after the 35-year-old returned from studying performance art in Brazil, where she had been introduced to the circus arts. She realized there was a gap in the formal circus opportunities offered in town.

“I grew up in Gainesville, so it’s really special to me to be able to create something that I think has had a positive impact on my community,” Cheval said.

A year after Cheval started S-Connection, she met Lynn Polke, a former dancer and aerialist who had settled down in Gainesville after working with the Ringling Brothers off and on for 25 years and traveling the world with the L.A. Circus. Polke had set up rigging in her backyard—which she refers to as the “Circus Church”—and started teaching aerial skills to folks in town, including Cheval. The two women hit it off; Polke is now an integral part of Cheval’s vision for her business.

Polke said her favorite part of the circus arts is seeing her students, particularly young women, grow physically and mentally confident. “Women in the circus have always been strong,” she said.

Cheval said the circus arts have taught her discipline and patience; some skills have taken her a decade to achieve. “Even if you are training every day or as regularly as you should, some things just take a long time,” she said. “And that’s okay.”

Cheval now manages nine staff members, including Rowland, who started training at the center when she was in ninth grade. Now 16 years old, Rowland teaches children’s and beginner classes, including one on silks and another on Lyra, which is a circular steel hoop that hangs from the ceiling.

“I’d like to do [circus arts] professionally, hopefully,” Rowland said. “… [The circus arts] are a really fun, creative way to workout.”

Cheval wants the center to be a safe environment where all types of people are welcome to explore their creativity, build strong, healthy bodies and collaborate with a diverse community. You don’t have to be flexible or strong to try the circus arts, Cheval said. The first step is coming to class.

“This is something that will challenge you mentally and physically,” Cheval said. “Challenge is good for growth.” •