It’s mid-afternoon on a beautiful spring Sunday as a dozen or so women gather for a regular class in Fairy Meadow.
They’re of different ages and from different backgrounds; some have attended classes for years and have formed strong friendships, while others are still learning the ropes.
But this is a class like no other, where fun and laughter go hand-in-hand with an encouraging and supportive environment, where even the smallest victory is met with applause and high fives.
Welcome to Circus WOW, where ordinary women do extraordinary things.
Circus Women of Wollongong – one of only a few of its type in Australia – has been around for more than 20 years but its original vision stands strong: creating an environment where women of all ages, abilities, shapes, sizes and backgrounds can come together non-competitively to learn new skills, build self-esteem and explore their potential.
The group provides a range of training classes and workshops for women aged over 18, as well as opportunities to participate in a variety of community performances. It also offers regular classes for its community choir, Acquired Taste Choir.
Trainers conduct circus classes for beginners, intermediate and advanced on a range of activities. These include adagio, which involves standing and balancing in duo and group work, aerial work on the trapeze, aerial silks and lyra (aerial hoop), and an introduction to the circus.
At the Sunday afternoon class, Dee looks supremely at home on the lyra yet confesses she’s afraid of heights.
“I’m petrified of heights, but I’m still here and it’s fun. The girls are absolutely incredible in terms of support. I never would have imagined that I could be doing any of this stuff,” she says.
“It’s a workout for the brain as well as for the body to remember where and when and how – every time you think you’re making a couple of steps forward, something will happen and it’s like starting all over again, but it keeps it interesting. It ticks all the boxes.”
The group, which has about 90 members, recently moved into new premises with Ghetto Movement in Fairy Meadow and is relishing the extra space it offers.
New management committee chair Sarah Stevenson, who’s been a member for about five years, says the biggest benefit of circus for her was being able to switch her brain off from her “normal life” as a clinical psychologist.
“It’s like that mindfulness kind of thing where you can’t be thinking about other things and be distracted by other stuff when you’re upside down in the air,” she says.
“You can’t be off, be anxious or worried about the world, you have to be right here, right now. And I think that’s a really important thing.
“Being able to come here and just play and have fun and laugh, and the women I’ve connected with here are the most beautiful women, who I probably never would have crossed paths with – there’s so many benefits.”
Sarah’s quick to stress that no experience is needed to join, just a sense of play and adventure.
Earlier this year, Circus WOW received a Culture Bank Wollongong grant, which will go towards new floor crash mats and allow the group to produce a show aptly titled A Comedy of Errorials.
It’s described as “a show where women come together to share stories of triumph and disaster while creatively tackling life’s mishaps”.
As well as a written submission for funding, Circus WOW included a bloopers reel showcasing some of the tumbles and mishaps that are a regular part of circus classes and “how crash mats are our saviours”.
“For every triumph, there are countless hours [and years] of practice, dedicated blunders and belly-ups, occasional meltdowns and always a new challenge right around the corner. This is the circus of life,” the submission said.
“Circus WOW’s kind and supportive community meets women where they’re at and cultivates an environment where women of all abilities, shapes, sizes, and backgrounds can come together non-competitively, learn new skills, build self-esteem and explore their creative potential. Having a crack at aerial acrobatics is always met with hilarious fails, accompanied by marvellous accomplishments and lasting friendships.”
Former committee chair Laura Hammersley says one of the most appealing aspects of Circus WOW is that it’s not competitive.
“It’s about all women coming together. We all have our own strengths, we all have our weaknesses and it’s about celebrating those and then just pushing yourself, not competing with each other,” she says.
“We pride ourselves on bringing a purpose of inclusivity and just a welcoming community.”