Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=115267
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 10:30:53 AM CST
Picture a giant hamster wheel rolling around under the big top – with you standing inside of it. That’s the gym wheel, and a veteran Cirque du Soleil performer is teaching classes to give Chicagoans a little taste of the circus.
Instructor Wolfgang Bientzle, 42, has been rolling around on the gym wheel since he was 5. Now living in Chicago, he has competed for 20 years on the wheel and works worldwide as a choreographer, coach and director for Cirque du Soleil, Disney on Ice and other events.
Bientzle already taught children’s classes through CircEsteen, a Chicago youth circus program, but decided to expand to adult classes. Located at Alternatives Inc., a community center in Uptown, the first eight-week session started in January. Bientzle said he hopes to continue offering the classes.
And it shouldn’t be a problem judging by the students’ responses.
“I love it, it’s great, it’s totally fun,” said Joshuah Thurbee, 33, a teacher from Lakeview. “It’s different. Like, who else does this?”
Not many people do it yet, at least in Chicago. Gym wheel is much more prominent in Europe, where there are regular competitions, Bientzle said. Most people in the United States are exposed to the wheel through circus performances.
But Bientzle wants to expand interest and emphasizes that nearly anyone can do it. There is currently a 64-year-old woman in his class who is “doing great” and simply does more static exercises than the younger students, he said.
“The physical limitations are that you should be able to walk,” said Bientzle, who has taught the wheel to deaf and blind people in Germany.
Bientzle and two assistant instructors help the students through new tricks each week, building off what was learned in the previous class.
To get a better idea of how the wheel works, Bientzle said to picture Leonardo DaVinci’s famous Vitruvian Man illustration. Students stand upright inside of the wheel with legs and arms outstretched, kind of like doing a jumping jack. Beginners have their feet strapped in with short leather belts, and there are handles for your hands.
Bientzle guarantees that anyone who tries out the wheel will be able to turn upside down within the first two minutes – and it’s true. He first teaches you how to rock back and forth, and then how to stop the wheel from rolling. It’s counterintuitive, because you let go of the handle in the direction you want to stop. About a minute after having your feet strapped in, Bientzle is already encouraging you to roll over. It’s an odd sensation to be hanging upside down inside of the wheel, but definitely easier than you’d think.
Students have also found that this one-of-a-kind sport provides a new kind of workout.
“I’m sore in different places,” Thurbee said. “You’re using different parts of your body, it’s definitely a workout.”
It’s a combination of Pilates and smooth gymnastics, and helps flexibility and posture through strength training, especially for the arms and core, Bientzle said.
“The wheel is very smooth from the beginning and very gentle to your body but you work everything,” he said.
The biggest challenge, many participants said, is overcoming the apprehension of turning upside down and doing tricks.
“Half the time you’re upside down and it feels like it’s going to be really hard or you’re going to fall,” said Heather Buford, 29, a teacher from Wrigleyville. “A lot of it is just getting past that fear.”
The best part about the wheel is that there is room to develop it as a sport and as a performance art, Bientzle said.
“There’s always a chance to create new elements. There’s always a chance to do something new.”