The latest fitness craze borrows tricks from the circus – The Greatest Showman style!
WITHIN minutes of meeting Jen Parry, I’m wrapped in swathes of silk and hanging upside down like a bat.
Jen, 46, runs High Hoops, a fitness enterprise with a difference.
For starters, she runs it from her front room – a converted church at Deighton, just outside York, along the A19.
This is no ordinary front room. She has steel rigging in place, from which is suspended an array of equipment worthy of Mr Barnum himself.
There’s a rope swing, trapeze, several hoops and trails of brightly-coloured silks, tied up in thick knots.
It’s from here that Jen teaches people how to perform aerial manoeuvres, which at the same time as being very good fun, also get you fit.
Jen, aged 46 and mum to 15-year-old Emily, first encountered aerial workouts eight years ago – and loved them so much she went on to train in the skills. She began teaching five years ago – and says they are growing in popularity, not least because of the success of the movie The Greatest Showman inspired by the life of circus legend PT Barnum.
When I arrive, three sisters are having a lesson with Jen. All three are wrapped in different coloured silks, performing various moves. The youngest, Sarah Burrows, 15, is standing proud, feet wide apart, making a triangle shape, while elder sisters Amy and Becky co-ordinate tipping themselves backwards, extending one leg elegantly behind them.
Jen is delighted. “That’s brilliant,” she booms, enthusiastically. “You couldn’t do any of that an hour ago!”
After a stretch and cool down to a song from The Greatest Showman, it is my turn to have a go.
Jen goes first, lifting herself on to a high hoop – imagine a hula hoop suspended on a wire and you’ve got the picture. She then deftly tucks her legs into the frame of the circle and throws her arms to the side in a “ta-dah” gesture.
Then it’s my turn. Jumping up into the hoop is the easy part; a bit like boosting yourself on to a swing. The next bit is more of a challenge; I have to shimmy my derriere around the hoop, lean my right shoulder back into the frame and squeeze my legs in. I feel like a contortionist and hold my breath and hope for the best when Jen tells me to throw my arms free too. I count to three and go for it. I smile when I realise I am hands free – and haven’t fallen off!
I quickly learn to trust Jen when she tells me to do something; she believes I can do it, and that is infectious.
Next, I move on to the aerial silks hanging from the steel rigging. At first, Jen gets me to simply stand erect on the loop of the silks, almost like standing on swing in the playground. But then she encourages me to bend backwards, raising one leg high in the air, tipping myself over. Jen reassures me that she will support me as I slowly fall backwards. It’s scary, and I squeal out loud, but my confidence is growing by the minute. As I lean backwards and raise my leg, I feel the blood rush to my head. It reminds me of doing handstands against the wall in the school playground when I was a child. And it’s great fun.
Feeling more daring, when Jen asks if I want to be a bat, there is only one reply. Moments later, I am hanging upside down, my legs wrapped around the silks to support my body weight and my free arms flapping the loose silk ends – yes, just like a bat.
After a lesson with Jen you feel pretty invincible – that’s the effect of pulling off physical feats you never imagined you could do.
I can see why she says her classes are as much about boosting confidence as getting fit.
“People come into my living room and feel miles better than when they first arrive,” says Jen.
If you think you have to be a super-fit gymnastic type to take part in one of Jen’s classes, think again.
“I was 15 stone and a size 22 when I started aerial classes – so you don’t need to be fit to join a class,” insists Jen. “To begin with, you can just do some easy stuff. Or if you are a gym bunny I can push you – it’s suitable for all different levels. What’s great is that I can get a 20 year old and a 50 year old working together – and you don’t get that in a fitness class.”
Classes appeal to men as well as women, says Jen – and are ideal for anyone who wants to get into shape but hates the idea of going to the gym.
“When I started, I had no upper body strength at all,” says Jen, who adds that all that inversion works wonders on the figure. “It pulls in the waist like a corset, making it smaller.”
Jen teaches hula hooping as well as aerial dance, and began doing these herself after a bout of ill health. “I had ME and was stuck in bed for four years. When I got better I wanted to do everything. I tried aerial dance and hula hooping – and began teaching my friends for free. Then I did my training and thought: ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to do this as a job’.”
Jen also works with members of York cancer support group Breast Friends and says the classes are a real boost to them. “When you think about the hell they are going through, they can come here and be in the circus for two hours.”
Jen had a very special client this summer – actress Maria Gray, who had to learn aerial dance for her role in Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Shakespeare pop-up Rose Theatre in York. Not only did Jen teach Maria how to use the silks, she hosted the whole cast who used her studio as rehearsal space for a short time.
Jen keeps classes small – between four to six people at a time – and also offers coaching for small groups of friends who might want to learn or have a go together.
Most of her students have something in common, she says: “The majority would not set foot in a gym, but they come here, laugh their heads off and burn loads of calories.”
Find out more at highhoops.co.uk