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It was around 9 p.m. and most of the official structured classes at Circus Collective were winding down. The aerial yoga students were putting away their silks and taking down the trapezes that hung from the rafters on a 30-foot-tall ceiling. The other students juggling light-up pins, hoops, and balls were starting to dissipate. As one student pulled on his shoes, he asked a question to his friend I’d never heard at any other boutique fitness studio: “I’m going to do an edible and stretch for two and a half hours tomorrow. Want to join?”
The vibe at Circus Collective is unlike the trendy and corporate boutique fitness classes that have popped up on nearly every corner of Denver. Deep in the warehouse district of Sunnyside, next to the giant mural of a sun that adorns the Denver Beer Co. Canworks, the studio isn’t catering to the techies and office workers who squeeze in a CrossFit workout during their lunch break or the hipster yogis who rush to a class after work.
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The studio is a destination. Along with traditional yoga classes, its main allure is the slightly more obscure pursuits including acro and aerial yoga, lyra, juggling, trapeze and rope classes. Many of their weekly scheduled events are called jams—free time for jugglers, acrobats, and circus performers of all levels to train, practice, and learn from the community.
“Our market is someone who’s looking for a more mindful type of fitness that’s mentally engaging as well as physically engaging to better themselves,” founder Peter Holben says. “It’s a local outlet for people to be creative through their bodies”
When Holben and co-founder Ariana Gradow started Circus Collective in 2017, cultivating a community was vital to their business. And every student and teacher I spoke with at Circus Collective emphasized that the people, teachers, and community are the facility’s main draw.
Holben was mostly training in parks around the city before he decided to bring the circus community of Denver together through his own entrepreneurship. Holben started unicycling at age 12 and when he discovered acro yoga five years ago, he combined the two, doing tricks and contortions on his one-wheeled apparatus.
“Since I discovered circus arts I’ve become a much more powerful person mentally as well as physically,” he says. “And I wanted to share that with other people.”
The first location was a 6,000-square-foot shared art gallery on Lawrence Street in downtown Denver, and on day one they hosted a workshop taught by Cirque Du Soleil performers. Last April, the studio moved to Sunnyside and then, in September, celebrated its two-year anniversary. While at first the classes focused on more advanced techniques, Holben began investing in intro-level classes to help newcomers get into the air—or even into fire.
On a Monday nights, you’ll see flames coming from the parking lot at Circus Collective—part of what’s called the “fire jam.” Students soak the ends of long pieces of rope or staffs in Coleman Stove Butane. A short flick of a lighter later and the parking lot is doused in the orange glow from the flames. Fire spinners of all levels are encouraged to try their hand at swinging the balls of fire around their bodies. Holben has worked with an insurance company, received a fire permit from the city, and makes sure newbies get a short safety lecture to keep everything legal and above board.
But classes are only one side of Holben’s business. The Circus Collective is also a full-scale entertainment production company. Circus Collective performers can be hired to appear at company events, parties, or fundraisers. Last year, Circus Collective performed at the RiNo Arts District’s Oxpecker Ball fundraiser, where they dressed up as birds to do aerial acrobatics and Holben rode around on his unicycle in a pink flamingo costume.
One of the collective’s most unique offerings is its Sunday morning ecstatic dance. This sober, talk-free dance party has been making waves across the nation—it’s been called “free-form movement” by the New York Times to a “decentralized dance party” by Burning Man. When I asked Holben to define it, he answered simply and concisely: “movement prayer.”
“Our mission is to create a safe space for people to move,” he says.