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Story: Dayne Buttafuoco
Multimedia:Ashley Gerke

Walking across a two inch thick metal wire that’s five feet above the ground; spinning plates on a long, thin stick while riding a bicycle with one wheel; throwing three or four or eight or nine balls in the air and catching them without letting them hit the ground, while spinning around; flipping your body over in weird and contorted ways; suspending your body 50 feet in the air with the only silk cloth securing your body from plummeting to the ground; and traveling all over the world allowing others to enjoy these unbelievable sights.

This was once the life of Erica Saben, a semiretired circus performer for the Give and Take Jugglers and current owner and director of the newly founded Charm City Movement Arts school in Baltimore.

Saben began performing in front of large crowds at the age of 12 while playing the trombone with the Sugar and Jazz Orchestra in Buffalo. After acquiring a strong love for the performing arts, she enrolled in SUNY Brockport as she continued to study the arts and soon graduated with a degree in dance. Her love for dance brought her to Philadelphia and she began performing with many dance companies.

After many performances with various dance companies, her transition from dance to circus begun.

“I didn’t decide to join (the circus), it chose me,” Saben said.

She was discovered while performing. Although she only promised to perform in one show with the Give and Take Jugglers, she found herself in love and soon, joined the circus.

“I’ve traveled all over the country and to different countries with the circus. The circus is kind of a family art form. They will take you under their wing and teach you the ropes.”

She confesses that it wasn’t an easy transition from dance to circus performing but it was rewarding and that kept her going.

“I’m the type of person that loves a challenge. I’m brave, ambitious and just a, um, little crazy,” Saben said.

After spending a few years with the Give and Take Jugglers and honing her skills with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, Saben began looking for a more suitable lifestyle to enjoy her relationship.

“It makes it hard to have a relationship, it kills your body, it destroys your mind, because you’re always trying to keep up with more advanced circus performers.”

After many discussions with her boyfriend, she began looking for an appropriate location where she would be able to share her love
of circus performing to anyone willing to learn. They settled in Baltimore.

“I’ve done few shows in Baltimore and I knew Baltimore had this cool kind of underground arts scene but it didn’t have a central place that people could go and take classes. So I felt there was just a need for it. It doesn’t have like a circus scene. There’s nothing like this. There’s some side shows and some burlesque in Baltimore but there is no designated circus school in the city.”

A right turn off of Eastern Avenue onto Clinton Street in downtown Baltimore, are row houses lined up consecutively. Conspicuously located at the intersection of Fleet Street and Clinton, is a row house converted into the Charm City Movement Arts school. Unexpectedly, it is the same location that Saben and her boyfriend reside. To save and earn more money for their business, they decided to use the, not so large, entrance room as their studio.

“We teach all of our classes in that main room. I seemed difficult at first but for each class we just rearrange the equipment or roll down the mats and it’s converted for each individual class.”

Getting people through the door seemed to be a challenge at first but because the art form is not common in Baltimore, people began to catch on. The goal is to have everyone in Baltimore know that the school exists.

“It’s hard to say because we’ve only been here for a year so yeah, there are a lot of people that know about it. We’ve been in every publication in the city and we’re on the news once a month. But there are still a lot of people that are like wait where did that come from?”

Saben admits that, at first, it wasn’t easy to advertise her business.

“Not only did people not know that this school existed, but that didn’t know that this facet of society existed.”

Although Charm City Movement Arts has only been open for a year, they have a respectable amount of loyal students. Students can pay for individual classes or become a member and even though their space is limited, the instructors are able to teach nearly ever facet of circus performing and are working to be able to have a location where they can teach every component of it.

“We’re open everyday. We literally have classes’ everyday. We’re really busy. We teach wire walking, juggling, unicycle, and dance classes; well-rounded circus performers should be able to dance, but we don’t teach aerial because there’s simply no room for it, but we teach everything else. Eventually we would like to have a space that we could have people in and out all day everyday so they can train. The goal is to have a new place in a few years.”

People of all ages train with Charm City Movement Arts, but surprisingly their most common student is one in their 30’s.

“Most students are in their 30’s but we have toddlers and kids. It’s most adults in their 30’s that are looking for something fun to do after work. It’s a good way to get in shape without realizing you’re getting in shape, also, because they can afford it. College kids can’t always afford a hobby.”

Saben enjoys teaching so much and wants anyone that is willing to put in the time and has the passion to learn, an opportunity to do so.

“A cool thing that we do is a work study program so if someone really wants to take a class they can. They come here and like clean for 10 hours a month and they can take all the classes they want. They want to learn and we need someone to clean our studio.”

Saben enjoys watching her students enjoy and transform their abilities, and their bodies but says the type of performing is not for everyone.

“It’s different for everybody and it really depends on how often you come in a week, but it usually takes about six months to a year for you to feel really good about it. It’s a grueling profession so you really have to put in the time to get good at it. It takes a lot out of you and it’s not for everybody.”

Saben and her team of devoted instructors enjoy being able to share their unique expertise with Baltimore and actually have hired a few of her former students to teach her classes.

“Some of the instructors are students that just got really good at it and now they teach. It’s like addicting. There’s a gratification factor involved in this as well.”

Saben sees herself expanding her business and teaching more people the art of circus performing for many years to come.

“The most rewarding thing about this place is that we have some students are actually starting to get really good at stuff. That’s the most rewarding thing when you have a school like this. You get to be a brilliant artist and love what you do. I love what I do.”

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012 4:20 PM

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