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Cirque de Amateur

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The term “amateur” gets a bad rap. While suggesting a lack of skill, the word actually comes from the Latin “amator” or “lover.” An amateur is someone who does what they do for the love of it, and in Omaha, some love the circus arts. People are flocking to the traditions of the big top for myriad reasons: hobby, self-expression, exercise, paid performance, or social activity. 

Ciara Searight is a professionally certified aerial trainer who studied with Aircats at the Boulder Circus Center, Aloft Loft in Chicago, and Circus School of Arizona. Searight is an aerialist, acrobat, and dancer. Gracefully, she performs above the ground, defying fear with seeming effortlessness.

“I’m a certified teacher, but I’m an amateur performer,” says Searight, who started FreakWorks Entertainment in Omaha to teach and reach out to those with a similar love for the art of the aerial performance. The group meets frequently on Sundays in Elmwood Park, and she welcomes the public to join them. Parks have always allured young acrobats.

“I did gymnastics when I was younger, but I was inspired by playing around on tall swings, flipping around and hanging upside down. I thought, ‘there’s got to be something like this out there,’” says Searight of what led her to aerial arts such as silks, corde lisse, sling, lyra, trapeze, flying trapeze, straps, chains, pole, Spanish web, and more.

Anyone can do something in the circus arts, from the highest tightrope to yoyo tricks, unicycling, or sleight of hand—the possibilities are limitless. All it takes is one specific talent and to know approachable circus folks like her, according to Searight.

Circus-Arts2“Even pets can be taught tricks to perform. FreakWorks has had fire breathers, sword fighters, aerial silk performers, a lyrist, unicycle, whip, rola bola, breakdance, acrofusion, juggling, fire fingers, fire staff, poi, ballet, hoopers, flag, hand tut, pole. I wish we had BMX and skateboarders. Contortion and hand balancing would be great. Also teeter totter and trampoline artists would be amazing.”

The athleticism in aerials is obvious, but performing in most circus arts is a guaranteed workout.

“It’s great exercise. It works every part of your body,” Searight says, adding that core strength is what makes it look so easy. “I always enjoy watching people for the first time and how proud they are after doing their first real pose.”

Sara Gray describes herself as one of the obsessed ones. As Purple Pyro (her pseudonym), Gray is pushing her limits.

“I practice several movement arts: I breakdance with a local dance crew, Organix, I perform fire spinning and fire eating with Animatikz Entertainment, and aerial acrobatics with Flight Motion Studios.”

As a kid, Gray used to attempt handstands and splits with her friends with little success.

“I never got them. I decided that it would just never happen for me, and that’s what I told myself my entire life. Now I can hold a handstand with a fire staff on my neck and do the splits.”

Gray believes everyone should revisit the limits they have set for themselves as she did when she came across FreakWorks.

“I got into the circus arts last summer when my boyfriend and dance partner introduced me to a small circus group in Lincoln. After climbing into the aerial hoop for the first time, I was hooked,” says Gray. “I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life and I can never get enough. When you start off barely being able to get into the hoop, and then you work hard enough to build up the upper body strength that most people lack, there is a sense of empowerment that becomes addicting. It really helps you realize that you can break any limit that you may have set for yourself at an early age.”

Andrea Grove fits the enamored hobbyist profile. She discovered circus artistry through a roundabout route. While she had excelled at gymnastic floor exercises as a child, she eventually gave up the sport. She tried replacing gymnastics with cheerleading, but she hated it.

“Unfortunately, I felt too old to be a gymnast, and then I eventually got caught up in being a confused teenager,” says Grove. Around 20, she began attending music festivals, where circus performers flourish.

“I saw my first hula hoop dance at a festival in Minnesota and was blown away. It looked like magic. So I went home, bought a hoop from Target, and started teaching myself through YouTube tutorials.” 

Elmwood meet-ups with FreakWorks, as well as contortion training at Laurel Feller’s FlightMotion Studios, helped Grove branch out, adding to her list of skills and her family. Because circus people are tight like that.

“It captured my heart,” Grove says. “That magical feeling of seeing my first hoop dance hasn’t gone away; it’s only grown. That’s why I do it. It is an escape from the mundane, and I hope to someday spark that magic in someone else’s life. They can join my family.”

Visit facebook.com/Freakworks for more information. Omaha Magazine

The International Omaha

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by The International Omaha

Beautiful, elegant horses competing in The International Omaha horse jumping competition will thrill audiences at the CenturyLink Center Omaha downtown on April 12 and 13.

“It’s not only a beautiful sport but a highly athletic sport,” says Susan Runnels, executive director for The International. The show is administered by the not-for-profit Omaha Equestrian Foundation. “It takes eight years for the rider to develop a relationship with the horse.”

As for the competition itself, “Riders have to jump 13 jumps in 80 seconds,” she adds. “They use English saddles and don’t have horns to hold onto. Sometimes, they are thrown off.”

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What is equitation? A quadrille? What does dressage mean? Before heading for the competition, visit InternationalOmaha.com. A glossary of terms unique to the horse world is listed under Show Jumping 101. Also on the website is a map of the course’s design. No two courses are ever the same. Jumps are numbered and have flags to indicate directions: A red flag is right, a white flag is left.

There are different types of jumps. For example, the Oxer has two verticals that are close together, making the jump wider. A Combination denotes two or three jumps in a row, with no more than two strides between each.

But there is more to The International than watching horses jump. It’s a family and fun event. During the daytime Equine Expo when admission is free, visitors can experience what it’s like to be around the 1,200-pound animals. They can also learn about eight different breeds of horses.

“Kids love to get close to the horses,” Runnels says. “They can jump over the mini-jump course just like a horse. Families will enjoy visiting all the interactive displays.”

Face painting, equine toys, clothes, jewelry, and a living historical display of cavalry days will be part of the fun. Daytime competition with riders and horses begins each day at 9 a.m.

The International’s goal is to “foster and develop international-caliber athletes with the equestrian sport,” according to Runnels. Competitors come from many countries for the almost two-hour shows. Last year’s winner out of 97 competitors was from Germany.

Who will enjoy The International? “Everybody. From 3 years old to 80 years old,” Runnels says. “It’s such a phenomenal sport.”

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Getting the most out of The International:

  • Stop at the Greeter’s Table. Look for a volunteer and ask questions. “There will be a lot of volunteers to answer questions,” Runnels says. “They will wearing the same colored tops and khakis.”
  • Pick up a program. Everything you want to know about where to go and what to do—and terms that are used in the horse world—are in the program.
  • See horses warm up in the warm-up area.
  • Be on time for the opening ceremonies at 7 p.m. Special entertainment on both nights will feature the Strategic Command’s joint color guard and the Omaha Police Department’s mounted patrol. Singer Marcello Guzzo and the comic act of Tommie Turvey will also perform. “It’s amazing what Turvey does with his horse,” Runnels says. The Omaha Symphony will play on Saturday night.

Stay for the Victory Gallop at the end. “It’s really cool,” Runnels says.