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Local Circus Artists Find Home in Des Moines

Cirque Wonderland

January 30, 2023

When you think “Circus” you might not immediately think of Iowa, but you should! Our modern community is young, but our history is rich. Did you know that the Ringling Brothers were born in McGregor, Iowa?


I was raised in Des Moines, Iowa, but moved to Salt Lake City, Utah in my early 20s where I accidentally stumbled into aerial arts. I had never done dance, gymnastics or anything like it before, and I wasn’t especially athletic, but I was new to the area and looking for things to do. So when I heard about an aerial dance studio opening nearby, I thought I would check it out.I bought a week-long trial pass and went to my first class. Little did I know that first class would literally change my life forever.

It was the coolest thing I had ever experienced. I found fast friends in that community and felt childlike. Once I got over the slight motion sickness from unfamiliar movement, I felt ethereal and danced like I had never danced before. I never thought that something like circus arts would be an option for a “normal person” like me, especially as an adult, but I was hooked.Cirque

When I moved back to Des Moines with my new hobby in 2011, I wanted to find others who shared my passion for aerial arts. But to my disappointment, there was no community to speak of anywhere in Iowa. So, naturally, I bought my own equipment, rented out a space and kept up my practice. I started traveling to Chicago every 6-8 weeks for a couple of years to train with some of the country's best aerialists and brought back everything I learned to my own practice and eventually to my students. As I honed my skills, people started to take notice. It was never my intention to start a business or build a community, but as word spread, more people became interested, and it organically grew into lessons, workshops, classes and, before I knew it, we had built a community right here in Greater Des Moines (DSM).

History proves over and over that when artists gather, magic happens. And that’s what has happened at Cirque Wonderland Studios.Bubble Ball

Performing in Des Moines

As the Iowa circus and aerial art community grew, so did the need for performance opportunities. I started with hiring my own students to perform with me, which snowballed into producing our own events and shows, including co-founding Misfit Cabaret, which produced dozens of variety shows in the region between 2013 and 2018 and gave hundreds of performing artists a stage and a sense of community. In 2014 and 2015, I produced the Aerial Expo which brought over 400 artists, including some of the world's best aerialists, from all over the country to DSM for a weekend competition and convention.

While our circus community is young, we are talented and eager! DSM circus performers have been all over the country providing entertainment at elegant fundraiser galas, quirky community festivals, intimate theater shows and everywhere in between. It’s no longer uncommon to find a dancer twirling from fabric in the sky, acrobats effortlessly tossing each other around, or a performer spinning fire at an event in Iowa.Cirque Fire

Cirque Wonderland Events

Cirque Wonderland, which focuses on a more modern style of circus arts, has provided professional gigs for its performers, including fundraisers like Winefest, Bubble Ball and YWRC Gala, music festivals like 80/35 and 515 Alive and countless performances at museums, weddings, comic conventions, galas and more.

Additionally, we host student showcases and a street team for our student circus enthusiasts. In the summer of 2022, we introduced our Social Circus outreach program and partnered with the West Des Moines Parks and Recreation department to offer free circus classes in the park all summer long. These opportunities have been instrumental in helping artists develop their skills to build a career in circus arts in Des Moines.Historic Valley Junction

Cirque Wonderland Presents Aurora

In an effort to encourage more community collaboration, we are thrilled to introduce Cirque Wonderland Presents Aurora to the Des Moines Civic Center's Stoner Theater on Saturday, Feb. 4. In addition to incredible circus entertainment, this variety show provides a platform for aspiring, semi-professional and professional circus artists to showcase their talents and gain recognition in the community.

In Aurora, you will find several thrilling circus performances from Iowa circus and aerial artists including: Erin and Brent, a dynamic acrobatic duo who met and fell in love thru circus, Mikayla Oz, a professional magician and recipient of the International Rising Star of Magic Award, and Chenoa, an aerialist from California who has found a circus home in Iowa.

The aerial and circus arts community in Iowa has come a long way from its humble beginnings. From a single aerialist training in a rented gym space to a thriving community of performers and producers, circus arts in DSM have grown in both size and significance. Performance opportunities, training opportunities and events have provided a stage for artists to showcase their talents and build their careers, while also fostering a sense of community and belonging. As we continue to grow and evolve, I am proud to have played a part in the foundation of this community and excited to see where it will go next. Next time you think of the circus, you'll know that Iowa should be at the top of your list.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership calendar of events is a one-stop resource for activities taking place throughout the region. Find networking information for Greater Des Moines (DSM) businesses or events specific to Downtown DSM.

Photo credits:

  • Header Image: Artist: Amanda Marie, Photo by Kelsey Seay
  • #2: Artist: Amanda Pichler, Photo by Jeremy Sievers
  • #3: Artists: Christa Dickson and Felicia Coe
  • #4: Artist: Felicia Coe, Photo by Danny Carman
  • #5 Arist: Bonnie McHugh
Felicia Coe

Felicia Coe is owner of Cirque Wonderland Studios and Entertainment in Historic Valley Junction, focusing on building safe, accessible and inclusive communities. Felicia is an aerial artist who has performed and taught across the Midwest. She serves as Vice President of the Historic Valley Junction Foundation Board of Directors. Photo by Amanda Pichler Photography.