Former Cirque du Soleil Performer Aloysia Gavre's Circus Training School in L.A.

Clockwise from top left: Manon Chaney, Lesley Vaughn, Sarah Sporich, Aloysia Gavre and Nicole Reineman. Photo by Joe Toreno

Funky jazz music fills the space as a trio of advanced contortionists twist in unison. Across the room, burgeoning trapeze artists are building core strength atop Pilates balls. And in another corner, a group of beginners attempts to master the proper foothold for shimmying up the smooth aerial silks.

It's a typical lively night at Cirque School, a circus-arts training studio set in an open warehouse-style space in Hollywood. The school attracts all types of enthusiasts—from amateurs looking for a unique fitness challenge to pre-professional Cirque du Soleil hopefuls. Celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz have trained at Cirque School, as well as cast members of productions like NBC's "The Cape" and CBS' "The Defenders."

And at the heart of it all is proverbial ringmaster Aloysia Gavre, who founded the school in 2009 on the heels of an illustrious career with Cirque du Soleil. Though she specializes in aerial hoop, Gavre is well-versed in all circus disciplines. Now she's spreading the love, one student at a time.


"Circus led me to feel empowered and part of something bigger than myself. It allowed me to push my body to an absolute extreme, while not losing sight of beauty, grace and presence," she says. "After years touring and performing with Cirque du Soleil, I found the need to share that empowerment with the general public."

At Cirque School, everyone is welcome—in fact, the school's motto is "For Anybody with Any Body." About 80 percent of the 400 students are recreational amateurs, choosing from the starter class trifecta of Aerial 101, Acro Fit 101 and/or Flexibility & Stretch 101. Some of these students have advanced to specialty "trickster" classes in trapeze, contortion, hand balancing, aerial arts and more.

As Gavre sees it, it's all interconnected, and everyone's an equal—no matter what the skill level. Classes are held in the open, where students of all levels can see the various disciplines. "It keeps our advanced students humble because they remember where they started," she says. "And it inspires amateur students to see what their training could possibly create for them. It's a noncompetitive, community environment."

That inclusive atmosphere was what attracted assistant director Lauren Stark, who first enrolled as a student in 2009. Like many who train here, Stark was a working dancer who simply wanted to build the "special skills" section on her resumé—but she was hooked after her first class.

"In the dance world, people believe you can't appreciate someone's beauty or technique if her body doesn't fit certain criteria," says Stark. "In circus, it's all about, 'What makes you crazy original? What can your body do that no one else's can?'"

Gavre first found an answer to that question at age 12, studying with Master Lu Yi of the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco. Lu Yi became her mentor after Gavre reached the milestone of holding a free handstand for a full minute. That's when everything clicked, she says.

"I felt like I was home," says Gavre, who became a professional performer at age 18, touring with Pickle Family Circus and Cirque du Soleil's Quidam. "I'd never felt so charged up full of adrenaline. It was addicting."

Today circus-style training has become a bona fide fitness trend in Los Angeles and other cities. Gavre says it's all due to the popularity of Cirque du Soleil, which had its U.S. premiere with We Reinvent the Circus in 1987 and now has 13 productions running in Orlando, Las Vegas and New York. "People crave that same exuberance they feel as an audience member," she says.

But Gavre's idea first took shape back in 2004, long before the fitness movement became trendy. She had just wrapped up a short-term run with Cirque du Soleil's O and relocated from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. After five years of touring with Cirque and doing an average of 10 shows per week, she was feeling the mental and physical toll. "I needed a new challenge," she says.

She started to experiment with what she calls a "cross-marriage of circus and Pilates," calling on her experience as a Pilates coach while touring with Quidam. She rented space at Absolution, a now-defunct Pilates studio in West Hollywood, and began offering five classes per week.

At the time, she viewed the venture as more of a passion project, funding it through her ongoing performance income. "It was not a moneymaker, but I was extremely money-savvy and conscious about every investment I made," she says. A Pilates studio was the perfect location to get feedback from experts in the field. "From those years of experimentation, I realized there was truly something magical there."

In 2009, she decided to strike out on her own and teamed up with her husband, Rex Camphuis, to open the business. (The two first met 17 years earlier when he was a stage manager for Pickle Family Circus.) Along with the small staff she'd amassed while at Absolution, the team for Cirque School was born.

"I don't feel like I truly started to run a business until we got our own facility," Gavre says of the 6,000-square-foot former auto repair shop that she rents. (It was once frequented by stars like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.) "Then the weight of what I'd decided became exquisitely clear and scary."

If she was scared, she didn't let it stop her from ramping up quickly, offering 12 classes weekly. Seven years later, Cirque School now employs 22 coaches and holds 53 classes every week across the circus spectrum. "Having a variety of circus skills is what makes a well-rounded artist and person—from walking the wire to sitting on the trapeze," she says. "Offering diverse programming is what has helped us grow and attract stellar teachers."

One of the biggest challenges is staffing, and it can be difficult to find trained circus performers who are also qualified to teach. "Just because you're a dynamo onstage doesn't mean you have the capacity to empower students," Gavre says. It's also a matter of liability. "Having lucid teachers who are able to quickly give a modification or progression is incredibly vital to our safety standards."

When she does find those rare individuals, Gavre works hard to retain them by offering her mentorship and referring them to outside performance opportunities. She often casts Cirque School staff in shows she choreographs for touring productions, like Cirque Mechanics and Cirque de la Symphonie and the school's sister company, Troupe Vertigo. Though that can mean multiple concurrent absences while staff members travel to places like Germany, London and New York, she wouldn't have it any other way. "Someone from the business side might think it's silly to take coaching staff away from the school to put them onstage, but it's been a fabulous way for me to nurture and foster them as artists," she says.

Conversely, she capitalizes on her far-reaching Cirque du Soleil network to bring in guest artists for a monthly workshop series. Recent examples include aerial partnering with husband-and-wife team Carly Sheridan and Ivan Dotsenko and dance trapeze with Kerren McKeeman. "It's great to be able to provide a different eye on technique, presence and performance," Gavre says.

Students who display high aptitude are invited to begin training at the pre-professional level. If they accept, Gavre and her coaches create a weekly schedule of privates and group classes tailored to individual goals. "I look at where they might fit into the performance landscape," she says, adding that students may also audition for consideration. She encourages artists to become well-rounded in order to increase their opportunities for work. "This might mean having a contortionist take a clowning class to open up her performance qualities."

No matter what level, students get to show off what they've learned at two annual recitals. Those who've reached "trickster" status can also audition for large-scale shows produced at the school. And pre-professional students get the chance to join Troupe Vertigo, which currently has a roster of 16 performers.

The company does anywhere from 6 to 18 shows annually. This summer marked the premiere of Tableaux, with an all-female ensemble of five aerialists, dancers and contortionists. "Troupe Vertigo is the place for Rex and me to elevate circus into an art," says Gavre, who directs and choreographs, while Camphuis handles the lighting and technical direction.

Though Cirque School is primarily for adults, there is also an audition-only children's program that includes summer camps and bi-weekly classes. Stark acts as its director, with 16 kids currently enrolled. Because of the high level of risk involved, previous training in dance, gymnastics or circus is a prerequisite for participation. "They also have to demonstrate the ability to focus and follow direction," Stark says.

There's certainly a lot going on. While Camphuis deals with rental inquiries and other management concerns, Gavre handles class programming and teacher training. Together they make it possible for people to experience the electric charge that Gavre feels every time she takes to the air.

"I wanted to make sure everyone could try a circus class at least once in their life," she says. "Challenging your body to the extreme can be life-changing, and I wanted to give that opportunity to anybody with any body."

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Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.

"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.

Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."

Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."

When Google came to town

Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."

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