Community support helps Night Owl Circus Arts through continuing temporary closure

Aerial teacher Craig Lewis closed his studio, Night Owl Circus Arts, in mid-March due to COVID-19, and though the studio has not yet determined a re-opening date, having virtual access to a circus arts community has helped Lewis know his studio is not alone.

(Contributed image)

NOCA first opened in 2013, and currently has two locations in Johnson City, Tennessee. They offer classes including aerial silks, lyra, acro-yoga, trapeze, Spanish web, adult tumbling, hula hooping, juggling by request and occasional fitness-based classes like yoga and ballroom dance.

Lewis joined the American Circus Educators Association as a member in late March when they moved their annual conference online. Since then, he has met and developed relationships with other studio owners and big names in the industry. The group has been holding weekly Zoom calls.

“It’s helped me know that, you know, we’re not alone in this,” Lewis said. “And it’s helped me feel confident in [decisions] because we get some pressure from parents that are going like, ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you open yet?’ but it’s helped me to feel confident in the decisions I’m making to know that it is totally nationwide. There’s one or two studios in the entire country that have actually started to open, and those are even opening on such a limited capacity you could barely call it opening.”

Much of the group’s discussion has been about different techniques to mitigate the effect of COVID-19. The biggest problem is that shared equipment is an inherent part of circus arts. Lewis said it is difficult to properly clean a silk or a trapeze, but the studio cannot afford to throw away a silk and buy a new one after every use.

“Some studios are lucky enough to have big garage bay doors, and they can open those,” Lewis said. “We don’t have that, unfortunately. We have pretty lousy ventilation. There’s also been talk about steam cleaning and ultraviolet sterilization and just so many different things or different ways that we can try to eliminate that physical contact from the class.”

Lewis said they are only offering one-on-one private lessons right now. Students are strongly encouraged to wear a mask. However, if it is causing them practical problems on the silks and both the student and instructor are completely comfortable without it, they can remove it once they are on the apparatus.

“Basically, they still need to wear a mask when they come in and until the point where they’re on the apparatus,” Lewis said. “And then they stay in their little pod, and they can take it off if they need to and then put it on if they’re going to go walk around.”

He said they are also trying to limit spotting – physical assistance by the instructor to help students safely complete a skill while learning – to reduce physical contact, but only to the extent that it is safe to do so.

“I actually had my very first, first-timer do a private lesson with me yesterday, since quarantine,” Lewis said. “So, that was neat. It was a little bit of a learning process for me to figure out how to teach an absolute first-timer on silks without touching them.”

At the end of each lesson, the student fills out a form with their name and the rig point number of the apparatus they used. The studio will not use that apparatus for three days to eliminate any viruses that could be on the surface. As a result, private lessons are limited because they do not have enough silks to quarantine every silk for three days with their normal volume of students.

(Contributed image) Night Owl Circus Arts performing group members perform on a lyra during their 2019 performance at the Virginia Highlands Festival.

In addition to the studio, NOCA has a performing group that has also been affected by the pandemic. They had several performances booked that have all been canceled, including their biggest performance of the year – a two-night show at Emory and Henry College’s McLaughlin Theater that is part of the Virginia Highlands Festival.

“That’s something usually, like right now this time of year, [it] would normally be crunch time, and I’d be super stressed and ripping my hair out with the show. It’s a ton of work, but it’s a big production, but it’s a really awesome experience for our students. That pretty much immediately got canceled, and all the other bookings we had got canceled. “

Even if a vaccine were created and administered to everyone overnight, Lewis said it would still be months before the group could take a performance booking because they have been on the ground and out of practice for months.

“So first we have to get our instructors in the air,” Lewis said. “Then we have to get our performers—well, we have to get start offering classes, get our students in the air again, and when you’re off the silks for a few months it takes a while to rebuild that strength and that muscle memory and everything. So, I mean, once we get the students back up again for a while, and they’re starting to get back to where we were, then we can start to slowly reform the performance company. But it’s this drawn out process, and that’s also all based on the hope that when we do reopen people are actually going to come back. Are people going to feel safe coming back? Do people have the money to come back?”  

Lewis has been using resources like the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Tracking Map that shows daily new infections, recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and statements from Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to help make decisions about reopening. He has also been keeping an eye on other regional aerial studios and local gyms.

Although the future is uncertain, what has given Lewis hope is the support shown by their students and the local community since they first closed. People have purchased class packages, and the studio has received donations through a GoFundMe they created, which has helped them with rent and insurance payments.  

“That’s just awesome that we’ve had that kind of support from people, and those people are just holding on to those credits to take classes when we reopen, but financially that really helps us and that’s really why they’re doing it is to support us, and I really just appreciate that so much. It’s really what’s gotten us through this is just people supporting us and people that are really passionate about us surviving this.”

To learn more about Night Owl Circus Arts, visit https://www.nightowlcircusarts.com/.

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