I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Name: Heather Kentner
Job: Founder and instructor at Cirque-ability.
In the heart of the Junction, Heather Kentner spends her days on hoops, aerial silks, and a trapeze. This equipment—along with mats for floor work, like partner balancing and tumbling—are the tools Kentner uses to introduce her students of all ages to the various arts of the circus.
A former competitive gymnast, Kentner was studying at the University of Toronto when she met a fellow athlete who trained with a circus troupe. After tagging along to several practices, Kentner ran away to join the circus… sort of. “I was hooked right from the beginning,” she says. She spirited her passion into teaching gigs at circus camps and schools in Canada and the U.S. In 2008, Kentner founded Cirque-ability, which she bills as an “aerial, acrobatic, and fitness studio.” While her business has grown to the extent that she now has several other instructors on hand, she still teaches 90 per cent of the classes herself.
Kentner admits that getting the hang (har har) of certain circus activities can be tricky, but all the classes at Cirque-ability are open to newbies. “All of circus is challenging, strength-wise,” she says. “Even for something like the silks we welcome beginners, and we have people come in to the class with no experience, who can’t do the splits or a chin up.” The secret to mastering the demanding circus arts, according to Kentner, is consistent practice and a focus on incremental goals. “We have a level system where we break each of the skills into progressions, and add skills week-by-week, which really helps improvement,” she says. “Even with one class a week, people make amazing progress.”
You teach a lot of classes for kids. Are they usually apprehensive about the equipment, or just excited?
Just like how some adults come in and aren’t scared of anything, some kids are totally fearless, while others need more time. But the trapeze isn’t a flying trapeze, it’s a static trapeze. So all the equipment is hung at a really safe height; you won’t see a kid flying 40 feet into the air or anything dangerous.
You’ve toured with a number of professional companies such as Cirque Sublime and Zero Gravity Circus. Do you still find time to perform?
Aerial was where I did all my performance stuff, and I still do perform here and there. But it’s hard when you are trying to work as your own agent and book all own gigs, and there are lots of people in Toronto whose main focus is performing. I try to make my number-one priority my coaching. I don’t want to miss a class and have a substitute teaching—it’s not fun for the kids if there is a different person every week.
Here [at Cirque-ability] we’re starting a performance program in the fall. I’m hoping to coach an aerial performance team and an acrobatic performance team—one for kids and one for adults—so that’ll be fun. Circus, for the most part, isn’t a competitive sport; it’s more of a performance art. For our performance team, we want to focus on having opportunities for them to perform and to network with other circus schools.
What were some of the challenges of opening up your own studio?
I started with just seven students, renting a space and teaching private lessons. When my friend was moving out of her loft, I expanded into my own 800-square-foot facility. I was there for two years, and then just this April we moved into a bigger space next door that’s 35,000 feet, so there’s a lot more room for all the equipment.
We didn’t really do any advertising in our old space—it was all word of mouth. Our main source of clients is still word of mouth, but now we have ads on Groupon.com and a few other places. That’s been good for generating more awareness and getting out the fact that we exist!
The definition of a circus has changed over the past century, from the big-top concept to a greater focus on human acrobatics. How do you feel about the evolution of the circus?
I think it’s amazing the transformation that “circus” has made. You have to have respect for the original form—although I don’t like all the animal stuff—but the Montreal circus scene played a pretty big part in the evolution of the circus. Cirque du Soleil really brought circus into the new form. When describing my classes, I actually don’t even use the word “circus.” People associate that with tents or animals, so instead I say “aerial acrobatics” or something, so they know that it’s more about performance and has an artistic focus.
Photos by D.A. Cooper/Torontoist.