Why students flip for Milton High’s Cirque-inspired classes

At about 2:30 p.m. on a recent afternoon, Cole Dobbs climbed up a tall pole, turned his body parallel to the floor and held a difficult pose known as the human flag.

Nearby, a couple of performers hung upside down as they performed intricate moves on white aerial silks. Others spun on a large steel ring known as a cyr wheel.

Cirque du Soleil's glorious "Luzia" is in town, performing at Atlantic Station through Nov. 19.

But Dobbs and his fellow aspiring acrobats, while performing impressive feats of strength and flexibility, are not professional circus artists. They are students at Milton High School, a public school in Fulton County. And they're enrolled in a Cirque-inspired performance class, a popular elective held during the last period of the school day.

“My parents made me try out,” said Dobbs, who’s a senior. “At first, I was like, no way am I going to dance around on stage in silly costumes. But then I joined (the Cirque club) and I have loved it. It is extremely physically demanding and it’s my favorite part of the day.”

Larry Smith, who teaches Cirque and theatre classes at Milton High and directs shows at the school, created the Cirque program nine years ago. He had previously started a Cirque after-school program at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a private boarding and day school in North Georgia, where he formerly worked.

The programs draw inspiration from the wildly popular Cirque du Soleil productions. And while there are a few gyms and dance studios in metro Atlanta that offer Cirque-inspired classes, they remain a rare offering at schools. The Cirque elective class at Milton High is likely the only one of its kind in metro Atlanta.

Several years ago, Smith saw La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and was awestruck by the spectacular blend of daring acrobatics and gorgeous choreography. He saw an opportunity to bring Cirque to high school students — a way for young people to try something new and challenge themselves creatively and physically while working as a team. He said the Cirque program also provides an opportunity to students who want to perform on stage but are intimidated by memorizing and speaking lines.

Today, 59 students take the Cirque performance class and perform in multiple shows every year. Another 39 students are enrolled in the Cirque fundamentals class.

The students develop themes for the shows such as “seaside amusement park” or “child’s imagination.” They work on the choreography.

Zach Collazo, a senior, joined the Cirque group last year after watching a performance at Milton High School.

“I went to a show and I thought, this is something I could do, and I really want to be part of,” said Collazo, who is also a member of the cheer team.

Haley Garrett, also a senior, said she used to be extremely shy, and she credits the Cirque group’s supportive culture with helping to build her confidence. She recently took the lead with the choreography for a 5-minute act featuring handstands and other acrobatic tricks.

While many students consider the Cirque a wonderful extracurricular activity, a few have sought to parlay their new skills into a career after graduation.

Smith said one of his former students landed a spot in a Cirque Du Soleil production, and at least one other student secured a job performing in a contemporary circus show.

Dallin Foskey, a senior, is hoping to attend the École nationale de cirque (National Circus School) in Montreal after graduation. A former rugby player, Foskey said he decided to join the Cirque club after seeing their show about four years ago. He performs on the cyr wheel and Chinese pole, and can perform other acrobatic acts.

“I am not so good at talking to people,” Foskey said. “Cirque is a way for me to talk without having to say anything.”

As with any sport or physical activity, Smith acknowledged there is the occasional broken bone. He said he urges his students to take “safe risks,” emphasizing the importance of spotting, staying focused, and employing other safety measures to prevent injuries.