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When life becomes a circus, why not take a class?
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When life becomes a circus, why not take a class?

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Tightropes, trapezes and trampolines are all out of the question in Circus Harmony‘s online classes.

The free “quaran-training” program does include plenty of three-ring skills: juggling, clowning, hair and makeup, hula-hooping and handstands.

Also, unicycles. With a caveat: “You have to have a unicycle to get anything out of the unicycle class,” said Jessica Hentoff, executive director of Circus Harmony.

“The circus is all about being flexible, being strong and keeping your balance,” she said.

Even more so in a pandemic. The organization, which teaches 1,400 youngsters every year and performs at City Museum, is one of numerous small businesses and nonprofits that have quickly shifted to remote teaching over the past two months. Yoga and dance studios, culinary centers, music schools and craft shops have revamped classes for online learning.

The process has been knotty. Some aspects — like aerial acts, concerts and communal cooking — have been put on pause, and attendance has been less stable. Revenue is more unpredictable, with some classes free and others accepting donations. Almost all have had to pare down their offerings and aren’t filling virtual seats at the same rate they did real ones.

At the same time, the coronavirus outbreak has forced organizations to expand their offerings — and embrace technology — in ways they hadn’t expected to before.

Kathy Massot, owner of the Dance Center of Kirkwood, has made a pretty seamless transition to its spring sessions via Zoom. Students just need enough space to do a proper plié. “I spend a little time before and after each class, just talking to my students to encourage them to keep their skills up,” Massot said. “Moving to beautiful music lifts their spirits.”

Gen Lobonc of Shock City Music says her online students are becoming more independent and improving their note-reading skills and dictation. “Students are learning the technology that professional musicians use,” said Lobonc, who opened the music school in Benton Park three years ago, then a second location in Maplewood.

When the school reopens, virtual classes will remain an option for students.

Instructors at Brick City Yoga filmed almost a hundred classes at the Benton Park West studio in the first week of the shutdown. Owner Kate Ewing schedules a couple each day that students can access for 24 hours after paying their $10 class fee. Seeing instructors they know, in a familiar space, has been a draw for her yogis, Ewing said.

Beth Templin’s fitness classes cater to the population that has been most vulnerable to the coronavirus. She owns HouseFit, a geriatric physical therapy studio and gym, which holds group workouts for people 55 and older.

Remote classes meant a change of format for Templin and her therapists, who used a lot of circuits and equipment, like dumbbells and resistance bands. Now, instructors find ways to strengthen and condition with body weight, chairs or other everyday objects.

Templin said there’s no dip in attendance. Participants like Jane Hackett find themselves attending more classes online, which cost about $20 a session, than they did in the studio — Hackett said she no longer has conflicts with her bridge games and volunteer hours.

“I don’t sit here and feel sorry for myself because I can’t go out,” said Hackett, who lives in South County. “It makes me feel so good and gives me a great start to the day.”

Perennial, a nonprofit craft workshop in St. Louis’ Marine Villa neighborhood, is stocked with bins of fabric, stacks of rescued books and rows of empty glass jars. Sewing machines line one wall; a workbench with drills, handsaws and soldering irons sits on the opposite side.

When stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March, Perennial’s schedule of classes and events was wiped clean.

But a “craft club” event last month seemed like it could translate into a kitchen-table project. Facebook Live viewers transformed old T-shirts into shopping bags, tin cans into lanterns and CD cases into bird feeders. More than 180 people watched.

It was the confidence boost Perennial needed. For a class on using baking pans to create garden stones, materials were dropped off at students’ homes or picked up in advance, and the instructor Zoomed directions on how to mix concrete, pour it into the pan mold and press in a design of glass mosaic pieces.

“Not all our classes translate well into a virtual format,” said Executive Director Katie Carpenter. “More than making up for lost revenue, it’s helping us stay connected to our community.”

Hentoff founded Circus Harmony almost two decades ago to introduce circus arts — and the determination it builds — to as many people as possible.

On-screen instruction is not something she ever thought she would do.

Typically, the nonprofit’s outreach programs bring tumbling, pyramid-building and contortion to a wide swath of fledgling performers across the region.

In some ways, Zoom classes are less accessible: They depend on internet connectivity, reliable devices and parental support.

Hentoff hopes that disparity will be less of a problem for her new online summer camps. All students will receive a prop box, complete with a spinning plate, peacock feather and juggling balls. Circus Harmony camps usually last two weeks, with a big-top finale. This year, each camp runs one week, with separate morning and afternoon sessions.

“It’s different being in front of a screen for six hours than being in a circus ring for six hours,” said Hentoff. “It takes more focus to learn.”

Colleen Schrappen • 314-340-8072 @cschrappen on Twitter cschrappen@post-dispatch.com

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