By Kristina Martin
What happens when two lifelong dancers meet and share a love of circus arts?
In classic Pittsburgh fashion, they team up and create a space for learning, performance and community.
“Sometimes I can’t believe this is my life; it’s amazing and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” says Jenly Deiter, who co-owns Iron City Circus Arts with Kelsey Keller. “It’s the right thing — the universe is like, ‘This is your life’s your purpose.’”
After connecting in 2013, the duo joined professional forces to bring Iron City Circus Arts to life, proving Deiter’s point: “Circus finds circus — we find each other.”
They started at the former Fullbody Fitness in Brentwood and moved into their current South Side studio at 711 S. 21st St. in 2017, and have been embracing the concept of storytelling through circus arts all the while.
“[Iron City Circus Arts] is a place to grow stronger, have fun and make friends in the process, all while [hanging] upside-down, says Keller.
To fully appreciate the company as it is today, it’s worth knowing the origin story. Deiter and Keller each pursued degrees in different fields before coming back to their center: a love of the arts. Keller says she graduated from Ohio State University and then “ran away with the circus.” Her circus arts career includes a 2016 run with a Cirque du Soleil show in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
“[The experience] gave me the boost needed to create my own shows and really sparked creativity in me,” says Keller, who thought at first that she’d try circus arts only for a short time. She never expected to still be immersed more than a decade later. (Deiter also has been involved in circus arts for 10-plus years.)
Deiter had worked with circus arts coaches in Philadelphia. They had such a positive influence on Deiter, who grew up outside of Philly, that she was torn when presented with a job opportunity in Pittsburgh. Once here, Deiter and Keller taught at Fullbody before becoming owners in 2014 and then moving three years later — after expanding their circus arts community — into their sizable South Side studio for Iron City Circus Arts.
Along the way, they each have grown their skills through partnering with experts; among them, Keller collaborated with a hand balance coach, and Deiter went to the West Coast to train. Deiter embraced her natural flexibility and got into contortion but also fire performance.
“Sometimes I put the two together,” Deiter says, noting she stretches to avoid overextending her muscles and has worked alongside a fire artist pal to build a solid skill base.
Choose your own adventure
There are multiple ways to experience the magic.
For starters, Iron City Circus Arts presents two performances annually. The spring showcase is open to all students and highlights their work.
The fall show is presented by Iron City Aerial, their 15-person performance company that can also be booked for events. The 2023 shows will take place in the evenings from Nov. 16 through 19.
At the studio, children and adults can also take classes taught by Deiter, Keller and a host of instructors. Sessions often run for multiple weeks and center around focal points such as trapeze, hoop and aerial silks. For adults, the average price range is $125 (to take pole, for example) to $145 (silks) for six-week sessions.
“I do like that they’re encouraging and meet you where you’re at. … And I like that there are a variety of body types doing this stuff,” says Samantha Syiek of Brookline, who has been taking classes for just a few months. “You don’t need any experience coming in.”
On a recent weeknight in the studio, trapeze and aerial silks classes were running concurrently in the space; the sessions each included support from classmates and instructors and demonstrations of how moves should look. To wrap the sessions, as music played in the background, some learners combined all the elements they worked through in the class and even filmed each other running through the moves from start to finish.
“[The instructors] encourage you to let go, to be silly and dangle upside-down and forget everything going on in your life,” says Natalie Stewart, a Pittsburgh native who lives in Millvale and has been a student since 2021. “You check everything at the door and get to hang upside-down and be humbled by apparatuses, at times, and play.”
Former dancer and current student Isabella Demyan of Shadyside notes that in class, students may be there together, but that everyone is running on their own tracks.
Stewart said the sessions remind you that “you can use your body however you want.”
These classes can conjure memories of childhood. In the case of South Side resident Matthew Clark, taking the trapeze class made him feel “like being a kid again on the jungle gym — but doing [the moves] with control.”
Deiter and Keller aim to educate others that circus arts “is so much more accessible than you think,” says Keller, noting that work typically starts on the ground before progressing. They also beam when talking about witnessing their students grow and connect with one another within an inclusive space.
Over time, the local circus arts scene has expanded, and the duo has partnered with other area businesses. Ultimately, it’s the concept of community that serves as a driving force — their “why.”
“I love the spark of creativity and imagination; that’s something that’s consistent — seeing the spark in someone’s eye,” says Keller. “That feeling of inspiring others is my favorite.”
Kristina Martin has a background as a magazine editor, and she’s currently a freelancer. Her articles generally focus on lifestyle topics, including food, weddings, wellness — and the hometown she loves.