Blue, black and pink aerial silk, elevated trapeze bars and black metal shapes — which I later learn are called “invented apparatuses” — dangled from the ceiling of Caroline Calouche & Co.’s rehearsal space on Monroe Road in the Sardis Woods area of southeast Charlotte.
Three dancers practiced whimsical, ballet-like steps facing the mounted mirror while another performed martial arts-style flips and hand-balancing tricks off to the side. As soon as I got used to the light footwork of the dancers, the women broke out their heels — only for their male counterparts to lift them over their shoulders and throw them around.
To an inexperienced dancer, the scene might sound unexpected — chaotic even. For the professional artists, this is their intent.
Rouge, the upcoming show the rehearsal was dedicated to, warns the audience of one thing: “Expect the unexpected.”
For Caroline Calouche, who launched her namesake company in 2006, the unexpected has always been part of the game.
“[Growing up], my dad was like, ‘You should own your own business.’ I don’t think he meant a nonprofit dance company,” Calouche jokes, barely breaking a sweat after an intense 90-minute Rouge rehearsal.
“I love all genres of dance and that echoes into my circus arts, too,” she told me.
And yet, contemporary circus acts were harder to come by. In fact, the only way to truly learn about the circus where she grew up in 1980s Gastonia would have been to run away and join the Ringling Bros.
Instead, Calouche ventured out in the world to learn more about the mediums of dance and circus performing. While completing two BFA degrees in ballet and contemporary dance at Texas Christian University, she saw a performance by the Brenda Angiel Dance Company, an Argentinian company that worked the aerialist arts into its shows. Angiel performers danced the tango in the air attached to ropes and harnesses.
She came across similar performances while doing post-graduate work in Austria, and though she found Charlotte’s art scene much improved upon her return, the availability of circus arts was still lacking.
So Calouche did the unexpected; she established her own professional dance company.
Calouche shared her two original goals for the company, which still drive her today: present engaging art that the audience has an authentic connection with and educate people on how contemporary dance and circus can benefit their lives. She believes an engaged, authentic connection can only be made when the audience sees themselves on stage.
“I very much love a diverse cast,” Calouche said. “That means diversity on the stage [with] skin tone, age, body type.”
Calouche is about more than lip service when it comes to representation, says Malanah Hobgood, a cast member in Rouge, who described how Calouche works hard to include different bodies, taking the time to learn their dance anatomy.
“Whenever we’re warming up, she’s like, ‘Use this muscle’ and I’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t even know I had this muscle,’” Hobgood said.
Caroline Calouche & Co. also partners with elementary, middle and high schools to educate students on potential dance careers and hobbies. Calouche makes sure to bring in male teachers to show young boys that dance is a legitimate option.
Although she didn’t originally plan on attaching a school to her professional company, she saw a desire to learn different art forms in the dance community. The Charlotte Cirque and Dance Center just fell into place, she said.
“I love teaching,” Calouche said. “I love giving back, I love sharing knowledge and I also gain knowledge from my students.”
Working with so many different disciplines requires Calouche and her performers to collaborate and find out what’s possible in their shows.
“I’m not going to pretend I know what every single different body is going to need,” she said. “Along the way, I have to ask and they have to give me feedback on what’s working, what’s not working and give me their suggestions to get the job done in a great and safe way.”
Calouche stresses a “quality over quantity” philosophy to her students and teachers. While there are programs available for intense training at CC&Co., she believes the art form requires time for a dancer’s body and mind to recover in order to prevent potential injuries.
Calouche has seen the psychological consequences of forcing dancers onto a stage; they lose their will to dance.
“We never pressure anyone to perform in our school … That’s not at all what it’s supposed to be about,” she said. “I care that the students develop a passion and a desire to intrinsically train and not want to appease anybody else but themselves.”
A hobby or something more
Calouche wants to assure all aspiring dancers that, yes, dancing can be a full-time job. During its 16-year run, Caroline Calouche & Co. has helped students audition for and pursue track programs to join professional circuses in the U.S.
The Charlotte Cirque and Dance Center offers students four different levels of training programs, which vary depending on skill and commitment level. Whether beginner or professional, though, you’re allowed to mess up, said Hobgood.
Calouche creates a place where you can learn to dance at your own pace, in your own time, she emphasized.
“You definitely feel safe to be yourself with Caroline Calouche,” she said.
The Charlotte Cirque and Dance Center also offers scholarships, financial aid and support for those looking to train with the school.
CC&Co.’s productions began with local artists but have expanded to bring outside talent from around the country, including Boston, Kansas City, Chapel Hill and Greensboro. Students from the Charlotte Cirque and Dance Center are also welcome to audition for CC&Co.’s production of Clara’s Trip, an annual holiday production billed as “The Nutcracker with a twist” for which Calouche put on its 10th anniversary rendition in December 2022.
As for Rouge, it’s a broad mix of styles and genres, from comedy to thrilling feats of physical prowess, featuring breakdancing, contemporary dance, Cyr Wheel, aerial straps and more from a mix of dancers and cirque performers.
“Rogue is a show that if you’ve seen it once, it’s never the same show twice,” Calouche said.
Rachael Houdek, madame of ceremonies for the past eight Rouge productions, says the difference between CC&Co. and other companies is Calouche’s dedication to continued education and adding widespread variety to her dance techniques.
“Caroline is constantly expanding the artistry within her own studio,” Houdek said.
“I think that’s kind of what drew me to her company was how innovative and creative she is,” added Hobgood. “She is always trying to make each show better than the [last].”
Calouche explained that, in her view, dance companies are competing against football and other intramural interests, not against one another. Her company, along with the Charlotte Ballet, a world-class ballet academy and the only other school that has a professional company attached to it, have worked together to bolster the dance scene in Charlotte.
Calouche encourages people to help in that effort by attending shows — not just Rouge, from which she benefits, but any locally produced dance show — and for those who are interested in taking up the medium to participate in live classes rather than learn from social media.
“Go work with people, go dance in the same space with other people, be in that community versus isolated behind a screen,” she said.
For those who are looking to learn more about dancing, Calouche likes to compare the art with her own love/hate affair with … mustard of all things.
“Your taste will change,” she said, ”just like your taste buds change every seven years. What you might not like right now, don’t close that door on it, you might love it in seven years and you never knew.”
Rouge’s run includes a performance in Raleigh on Feb. 10, followed by a performance in Greensboro on Feb. 11, then a run of four Charlotte shows from Feb. 17-19, with tickets starting at $27.
Although all showtimes are rated PG, Calouche suggests families go to the Feb. 18 show at 6 p.m. or Feb. 19 at 2:30 p.m. for a more tame experience.
Calouche insisted that the adult humor will fly right over your kid’s heads (she can’t promise anything for your teens, though). You’ve been warned to expect the unexpected, after all.
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