The National Centre for Circus Arts, in London, sounds grand, because it is. There are acres of plate glass and sprung floors, and cathedral-scale studios full of dauntingly impressive young people throwing stuff at each other. But didn’t feel intimidated. There may be people here doing degrees, but the beginners have a room of their own. Admittedly, half of them can throw a handstand with one hand balanced on a water bottle for maximum effect, so who knows where the real beginners were hiding. But it’s extremely inclusive, the way countercultural hobbies often are.
“What are you,” I started, to Glen Stewart, not really thinking through this sentence, which would inevitably end: “A clown?” “A trainer. I’m a trainer,” he replied. Stewart is wiry and eerily mobile, his movements stretchy and deliberate, as if he was created by CGI. We started our session with five minutes testing our flexibility: can you touch your toes? How far will your arms go, if you swing them out to the side like a 3D clock? Pretty straightforward stuff, this, unless you’re competing with the others, which I knew better than to do (they were all younger than me). But here’s the magic bit: we then did a quickfire coordination exercise, split into pairs, one holding up a piece of paper with a series of marks (indicating left, right, both), the other touching their left hand to the leg, or their right, or both, as fast as possible without making a mistake. The theory is that you unlock your brain’s full functionality by forcing it to concentrate. After that, try your range of movement again; it is greater. The difference wasn’t immense; but it was noticeable. “All the things you thought you had to do by stretching,” Stewart said, “instead you have to wake up the part of your brain that prefers to stay dormant.”
Dividing the acrobat studio into four stations, we worked on handstands, trampoline jumps, juggling and a fiendish move with a hula hoop called roll skipping, which looked possible, but wasn’t. But start with the handstand. It looks like a thing you can either do or not do, but there is a nursery slope: try it at home, if you like, but don’t sue me if you fall on your nose. Plant both hands on the floor, fingers splayed, the inside of your elbows facing outwards. Put your butt in the air, as if you’re doing a downward dog. Oh, sorry, go back a stage and make sure there is a wall about a foot and a half behind your hands. Plant one foot on it, then the other, as if you’re crouching for the start of a race, except in the air, against a wall. Then see if you can get one leg away from the wall, pointing up straight towards the sky, and write your name in the air with your toe. Step two is getting stable enough to keep it straight. Step three is kicking the other leg up to meet it. I got nowhere near halfway to the first step, but found it deeply engrossing. Juggling, on the other hand, is a foreign country.