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Teaching STOTT PILATES® to the acrobats, contortionists and clowns at Cirque du Soleil

STOTT PILATES and Cirque du Soleil

A career in mindful movement can take you far beyond the gym or studio— try behind-the-scenes at Cirque du Soleil.

That’s where Merrithew Lead Instructor Trainer Leslie Wall in Toronto, Canada, and Merrithew Instructor Trainer Sarah Helmy in Cairo, Egypt, worked for a few weeks last year.

“During the three weeks I was there, I was working on the performers’ strength, endurance and stability. I had to tailor exercises to their needs while making modifications for any healing injuries,” Sarah says.

“From a professional perspective, it was an extraordinary experience to witness the work behind-the-scenes and it was fascinating to see the mechanics of these athletes’ bodies. They’re capable of doing things that you don’t see in your day-to-day clients and yet they also have a lot of muscular imbalances and stability issues.”

Cirque performer stretching on the Stability Ball

With about 10 shows per week and minimal time off, the physical demands are unrelenting and so preventing injuries is paramount. Leslie and Sarah were hired to use their expertise in STOTT PILATES® to assist the performers with injury prevention and recovery.

The challenge for them was to tailor their programming for a very diverse group of artists with completely different physiques and needs in 30-minute sessions.

“The fire artist required a totally different exercise program than the contortionist,” Sarah says. “Every day you’d be approached with a new problem, but that’s also what made it exciting and challenging, not knowing what you would get next.”

In general, Leslie found their muscular imbalances most acute, with one area of the body clearly dominating due to the repetitive nature of their performance regime.

“During that half hour, you’re listening to them, you’re starting to understand their personality and you’re watching them move, and all that helps you read the situation and decide what you need to focus on,” Leslie says.

The gymnasts and trampoline artists, who performed in short anaerobic bursts, were extremely strong and flexible. With them, Leslie worked on balance and small range of motion exercises to activate their local stabilizers.

She used the Mini Stability Ball under their lumbar sacrum in a supine position to work on stability in an open kinetic chain, or she placed the ball in between their legs to trigger the inner thigh connection. When they occasionally used the Reformer for footwork or legs in straps, she used light load and low tension to promote stabilization.

“Most people would think that when we work with Cirque du Soleil athletes, we’d be getting them to do the STOTT PILATES Advanced material because they can, but most of the time, we were doing the opposite. We focused on very basic exercises to fire up their internal muscles rather than their big global muscles,” Leslie says.

And the result? These ripped and sculpted athletes who could flip, twirl and support themselves from ribbons in the sky couldn’t believe how Pilates made them tremble.

“One of the trapeze acrobats, he commented on how sore he was after my session. They’re used to working on mobilizing their muscles— it’s all movement, all the time, so you make them work in stillness and it’s the most challenging thing for them,” Sarah says.

Cirque performer lying back on Stability Cushion

What’s your advice for other STOTT PILATES instructors who get to work with Cirque du Soleil?

It’s more than just guiding them through the motions; inform and educate them about how Pilates can help

“They were really impressed with the information and background I provided. I was telling them how and why these exercises were important for them, and how they were going to benefit,” Leslie says.

“One of the performers I worked with, he loved every minute of it. He worked on everything I gave him and really began to feel the benefits. He’s married to another performer in a different Cirque show, and he was like, ‘I can’t wait to see my wife and show her some of these exercises,’” Leslie says.

Cirque performer using Fitness Circle
Acrobats stretching together

Since the sessions are so short, you need to maximize your time with each performer.

Leslie suggests trying to get as much information as possible about who you’re working with— whether they’re an acrobat, clown or musician— and what their injuries are beforehand, so you’re as prepared as possible.

It’s also important to meet them on their level and realize that this is meant to complement their workout and help them with injury prevention and recovery.

“They’re over-trained and exhausted, so sometimes they might just want an easy warm-up that helps them relax and unwind. You don’t want to overwork them before the show. At the same time, I think they did come to recognize the benefits of Pilates in helping them with their alignment and stability,” Sarah says.

“They rely on their bodies for their livelihood, so they don’t take their bodies for granted.”

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