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    This story originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

     

    Coat Check is fun, but there's a lot more to Turners than the pool.

    Photos by Mickie Winters

    On a recent Monday evening, three classes share the mat-covered gym floor at the Louisville Turners club on River Road. An instructor in a green tank top and peacock-feather-patterned leggings leads a small group in a round of burpees, knee raises and planks before she demonstrates movements on two vertical poles that nearly reach the warehouse-tall ceiling. She gracefully twists her right wrist around one pole, grabbing it with both hands and hovering in a circle. Students stand in two single-file lines, each mechanically turning their wrists in a clone motion, mirroring the slow twist.

    In the middle, three women each climb twin ribbons of yellow silk strung from the ceiling. One of them expertly wraps her feet into the silks, almost forming a knot, her toes peeking through the gold bind she’s made without use of her hands. The silk crosses behind the small of her back. She is trying to raise her feet and twist around into an upside-down position.

    “Ankles together! Pull hard!” the instructor says, demonstrating the movement, floating about a foot away from the mat.

    *


    Photo: The Louisville Turners compound off River Road.

    American Turners is a national organization with a shared logo of a red discus thrower bent over like The Thinker against a white background, flanked by a motto: “A sound mind in a sound body.” The group’s national website lists 54 chapters, mostly concentrated in the eastern half of the United States. Founded by German immigrants coming to the United States after the 1848 rebellion in Germany, the Turnvereine (the original name) began as societies to preserve culture and practice gymnastics. (“Turnen” means “to perform gymnastics.”) Members guarded Abraham Lincoln during his inauguration and served in the Civil War. The Turnvereine became the American Turners after anti-German sentiments proliferated during World War II. Some Turners clubs still maintain a focus on gymnastics. 

    Louisville Turners president and gym director Cindy Law says Louisville’s program is unique, including a circus event added in the 1940s after Bulgarian circus performers spent a winter in Louisville with the Turners. “It became a way for the gymnastics team to make money,” Law says. Each March, Louisville Turners hosts what Law describes as a “contemporary theate-arts circus.” In 2009, only 35 performers participated in the circus; now, that number is up to about 200.

    Louisville’s chapter is listed officially as the second organized Turners club, founded in 1850, after Cincinnati’s, though rumors say it was actually the first, unofficially started two years earlier. The River Road property was purchased in 1911. 

    Turners Park on River Road is tucked away from the street. A wooden sign advertising late-summer pool sessions guides visitors down a gravel path to the parking lot. The place is expansive. The pool, an L-shape with twin diving boards, ranges from three feet at the shallow end to 12 feet at the deep end. A full pool house and concession stand edge the bottom of the L. A sports club, founded in 1960, uses the two volleyball nets and baseball field, the outfield stretching a quarter-mile to the road. In the back of the property, beyond a cozy grove of shaggy grass and thick trees, are the boat docks, able to hold some 20 sailboats, houseboats or cruisers.


    Photo: The Louisville Turners pool during the day.

    Between the gym and the pool is a small playground, with monkey bars and swing sets. Horseshoe pits sit closer to the river. The lounge — cheapest drinks in Louisville, according to circus instructor Terri Kendall — sits on the second floor of a building original to the site, with dark wood paneling and a pool table. Just beyond this building is a covered space with a few large wooden spools acting as tables. A silver cannon points up to the sky. It’s a relic from a member who dropped it off because it was cheaper than hauling it to a scrap yard. It acted as a meeting place for parents and children in the club’s heyday.

    Every few years, huge floods roll in beneath the newest building, which stands on pillars and holds offices, the circus gym and a bowling alley. The edge of the river bobs up to meet the buildings almost every year. In 2015, only the top of the cannon was visible. 

    *

    “We need a ‘No Glitter’ sign,” Bryan Whiteman says one Friday evening in July. “Anybody got one?” A few times every summer, he and friends rent out the Louisville Turners pool for a popular party called Coat Check. On this Friday, the sun is still above the horizon at the start of the party. Beers in hand, most people in the early crowd sit in ground-hugging, green-and-white-striped nylon pool chairs. A young woman in a neon-pink swimsuit twirls a teal hula hoop around her arms, threading her body through the circle, kicking it off the concrete and around herself. A chain-link fence encloses the pool, and a one-way turnstile acts as an exit to the right of the makeshift bar — a fold-out table with a black tablecloth. By the time there is only a smudge of pink left in the sky, a line has formed at the diving boards at the deep end of the pool. After each jump, the boards flap and vibrate like a spring doorstop.

    “It’s a good hang,” says Whiteman, who conceived of the idea for Coat Check after attending the Cropped Out music festival, which takes over Turners for two or three days each September. (At the 2012 Cropped Out, I remember a sign advertising “shitty tattoos by Mike” — so awful that anybody getting one had to sign a waiver verifying they were aware that it would not be a quality piece of art.) The 21-and-over Coat Check has a $12 admission fee per person. “We talk about it like it’s a TV show. Tonight’s party is called Season 3, Episode 2,” Whiteman says.


    Photo: The Coat Check pool party.

    “Our goal is to keep the party as safe as possible for everyone,” Whiteman says. “No fights and no sexual harassment. By that I mean the less sketchy dudes prowling the party the better. We want to avoid having a Jersey Shore- or Vegas-style party at all costs. The more it gets out, the more we risk that.” One person snakes through the party, phone aloft, saying, “Say hi to Facebook Live!” 

    By 10:30 p.m., a line stretches away from the pool house, party entrants being ID’d and wrist-banded. Someone in loose trunks carries a cardboard box lid through the crowd, balancing seven opened Miller Lite cans. Someone else skims through in the other direction, Papa John’s box held aloft. An inflatable bull sails into the pool. By this point, the water is dotted with several heads, and two people try to ride the bull, one hand in the air as swimmers jostle the inflatable around, making waves. 

    Nearing 11 p.m., the two men in black SECURITY T-shirts no longer corral poolside beers as they did nearer the party’s start, no longer instruct drinkers to emerge from the water to dock their cans out of the spill zone. A wall of bodies lines the edge of the pool, as if the lip is a bar top, legs spilling down into the water, arms lifting out. 

    *

    “I used to say that I ran away with the circus and I might make it home for dinner,” says Law, the Louisville Turners president. “If you want to see me, you have to join the circus too.” Law’s son has performed a ladder act with her. Her husband works as a bartender in the lounge or at Coat Check, or as part of the backstage crew during the March circus performances.

    At its core, Louisville Turners is a tight-knit club. Memberships range from single-person (about $250 a year) to both parents and all children (about $400 annually). Being a member means perks, including discounted classes and access to the pool. But being a member also means volunteering. “Our goal is not to have people become a member because it’s cheaper, but because you want to be a part of something,” Law says.


    Photo: The Coat Check pool party.

    Our discussion is slightly derailed when a new member asks how he can be kept in the loop without a Facebook account. When Kendall, one of the instructors, learns that the man paints houses, she mentions how Turners needs to be repainted. “See how we work around here?” Kendall says. “You have a skill, we’ll use it.”

    Kendall bounced around the country before settling in Louisville about 23 years ago. She has been a member of Turners since 2013. “It’s taken me a long time to find my peeps,” she says. “I’ve always been a fish out of water. For me, this is my family.”

    This story originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here. 

    Cover Photo: The Coat Check pool party.

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    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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