Founded in 2003 by, Peter Van Thiel, Calgary Circus Studio has become a home for performers and athletes who are looking for something “a little different.”
Van Thiel’s original goal was to travel with students to different parts of Canada, when he was ready to pass the baton, the new head of the circus, Cary Lam, who was just returning from travelling the world for four years, had a different vision.
“My mission has been to provide a home for anybody who needs circus,” said Lam.
Lam’s passion for circus began in 2006, which developed during her travels, work and studies. When she returned to Canada, with experience and training in aerial arts and poi (swinging tethered weights) in tow, her vision was to bring this same passion that transpired in her, and create a circus “home” – at home.
Many students identify with the Calgary Circus Studio as their second home, a place where they belong.
Since 2009 when Lam took over, the circus has grown from one class every two weeks to 20 classes per week, attracting people who are, according to Lam, “more about reaching personal goals” and not concerned with needing to prove themselves to others. Most students hear about the studio by word of mouth, because they do little advertising. Students seek out circus stemming from an inner longing to do so for various reasons, usually ones that began long before.
Colleen Van Spankeren, instructor and student of the studio agrees.
Van Spankeren’s first memory of wanting to walk tight ropes and swing through the air began in early childhood. She remembers playing on monkey bars as she crafted routines. But was not bitten by the tangible circus bug until the first time she tried the trapeze while on vacation with her family in 2009. Van Spankeren was even asked to star in the resort’s finale circus show.
Fortunately for her, her husband and three children, Van Spankeren had a place to go to in Calgary to live out her newly-discovered love. She took her first intense circus teacher training course in Vermont in 2013.
“I honestly had this feeling that if I did not have a family I would not go home.”
She is enrolled for another teacher training this year. Circus training for herself, and teaching, are both important to Van Spankeren.
Ironically, both Lam and Van Spankeren are former accountants. Van Spankeren explained that “the silks” are similar to math in that how one comes down depends on how the silk is wrapped. Even though a position may look the same, Van Spankeren says there are distinct differences in the exit. Also, there can be eight or ten different ways of getting up into an arrangement–all ending up in the same pose.
“That’s where the wrapping takes on a theory. It’s almost magical.”
The raptures of circus for Van Spankeren are the constant learning and the never-ending challenges. She also finds great joy in watching her students reach a goal, or in the moment they “get” something.
“I really do like sharing it with people.”
Because of its unique nature, the studio has been able to remain small and in control of the classes. Keeping the club small has kept the politics out and the positive creativity in.
“I almost want to keep it a secret, or the ‘family’ gets too big,” laughs Lam.
There is a “parallel with identity” when it comes to their training. Students have to face the same “inner demons” that confront them in the outside world, as they meet the challenge of doing things that are “really hard.” Lam explains that the students pick a goal for themselves for a reason, and it is interesting to watch them see it through, even when tested by many obstacles.
“The first lesson is usually humility.”
The school’s focus remains recreational and non-competitive. It is a place where people can be, and become, themselves.
“I don’t want you to learn to be me, I want you to learn to be you.”
Lam was born in Hanna, Alta., the same small town that was home to NHL’s Lanny McDonald and the popular band Nickleback. Lam jokes she was “the cutest Asian kid in town,” until her sister was born. The combination of heritages from her father, who is Chinese, and her mother, who is Taiwanese Aboriginal does in fact, come with distinction.
Lam said that it took her mother a long time before she say with pride where she came from, because Taiwanese Aboriginals were not always considered “higher class.”
Lam and her partner of 15 years have no children. Part of the reason, says Lam, is because of her introverted personality. Instead she devotes her time to areas where she can be authentic, and nurture authenticity in others. They have decided not to marry but that does not take away from their commitment.
“What is important to me is the intention.”
Lam is turning 40 this year and she has set the intention of doing various acts of gratitude through volunteer work throughout the year.
The uniqueness that is Lam, herself, is similar to the gift of uniqueness that has been fostered in the studio. Although one day Lam will move on, for now, the little circus home has brought much joy into the lives of those who belong.
The studio offers training for children as young as 7, and its oldest student is almost 65.
The offered training is in: aerials, which includes silks, trapeze and anything that hangs in the air; prop manipulation, which is juggling, diabolo and anything that involves the hands such as plate spinning; balance equilibristic, which challenges one to feel from the feet; and acrobalance, which is working with a partner and focuses on trust and responsibility.
For Calgarians who are ready for more than regular fitness, and for those who are filled with this unique wonder, creativity and positivity, they no longer have to run away to join the circus, thanks to Cary Lam and her team, the Calgary Circus Studio has come home to them.