Big striped tents. Jugglers and acrobats. Cotton candy, sparkly costumes and magic tricks. Some of us are lucky enough to have childhood memories of circus visits. There was something so elusive about those performers. But thanks to the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts located in Germantown, circus performing no longer has to be something unrealistic and unreachable. OK, so the school doesn’t have tents or cotton candy, but it does offer unicycle classes and trapeze lessons.
The school’s mission is “to be a headquarters for circus arts in Philadelphia,” says Shana Kennedy, the founder and director of the school. “We are about empowerment, physical fitness and recreation. We are taking a beautiful, high-echelon art form and making it accessible and relevant to everyday people.”
The school is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month. The Germantown location fits it well. “I had been searching for a building for a long time, in all neighborhoods of the city, unable to find the right square footage with the ceiling height I needed (20 feet). I was very fortunate to come across this building,” says Kennedy. The old space was once a bowling alley, a glass factory and a furniture warehouse. Now it houses a circus in training.
Kennedy is kept busy with the school’s packed schedule, which includes a wide range of circus arts classes like juggling and tightwire, among many others. No previous experience is required to take the classes. Although the school currently offers more adult classes than kids’ classes, the children’s programs are quickly expanding with summer camps and classes for kids as young as 18 months. About 250 students are enrolled at the school at any given time.
Classes are surprisingly affordable. Eight week sessions run $160 while workshops are only $20. Private lessons are
The circus school’s offerings extend beyond the class format as well. “We do so many things here at the school, from birthday parties, to adult Intro to Aerial Skills workshops, to corporate team-building events,” says Kennedy.
And for those who prefer sitting back and watching, the school is also organizing a variety night later this month, an hour-long presentation of dancing, juggling, sideshow and aerials.
Whatever way they’re used, circus arts are growing in popularity throughout the country. “It’s finally making its way over to America,” says juggling instructor Kyle Driggs of circus performing. “It’s been huge in Europe for years.” It seems that although the country as a whole is playing catch-up, Germantown is home to something progressive on an American scale.
“There are only four other facilities with full-fledged circus arts programs in the country right now. There are many smaller programs, however, that are growing. We are the only facility in the Philadelphia region. The closest other school is in New York,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy sees a bright future for circus arts on this side of the Atlantic. “I would guess that in 10 years there will be quite a few more (schools) to add to that number, as circus is really on an upswing in popularity and growth,” she says.
And why this increase in popularity? “There’s more venues to see it in,” says T. Lawrence-Simon, an instructor at the school. He cites pop stars, clubs and Cirque du Soleil as driving the public’s growing fascination with the art form. “’Cirque du Soleil’ is like a verb now,” he says.
The fitness benefits of circus performing are also appealing. Circus is now an alternative to yoga. “A lot of people come to get in shape in a fun way. Gyms are boring,” says Lawrence-Simon. “It’s becoming more integrated into mainstream workouts.”
Students’ motivations to join the school vary. “Fitness, fun, challenge, camaraderie, those are the top reasons,” says Kennedy. Some students even train to be professional performers.
Skills learned at the school can impact other areas of life as well. “You’re gaining muscle. You’re gaining confidence. Things become less scary,” says Lawrence-Simon.
There’s also an eccentric factor in circus appeal. It’s something different. Beth Weller, who works as a paralegal by day, started trapeze in New York to celebrate a birthday and “just to try something new,” she says. Then she got hooked. New to the Philly school, she’s having a private lesson with a friend to gauge her skill level and help determine which class she should sign up for. Her instructor takes her over to the silks, something Weller hasn’t tried before, but she’s eager to give it a shot. There’s no way to deny it looks like fun.
Lauren Smith’s day job is as a librarian. She has a friend who studied dance and is now a professional acrobat.
Watching her inspired Smith to try circus performing herself. Although she has no previous circus experience, she’s working hard to improve. “I’m like a lump of clay. I want to get really good,” she says. “It’s really inspiring to be here.”
The gym in which these students take classes and practice is simple but bright. The space has undergone quite a transformation. “When I moved in, it was a burned-out looking concrete garage,” says Kennedy. Now the hardwood floors and whitewashed brick walls house static trapeze, ropes and silks (curtain-like fabrics suspended from the ceiling) in bright yellow, turquoise, pink, purple and white. Thick mats are positioned underneath to break falls. An observation deck above the work out floor gives visitors a good view.
Instructors show off routines that make your eyes widen in admiration. They make it look so easy, their bodies suspended above the ground and twisting around like liquid. It’s almost mesmerizing to watch. It’s when the students try that the difficulty of the moves becomes apparent. They’re not quite as smooth as their teachers, yet. Trembling muscles and concentrated faces give evidence of their dedication. They’re sure to improve.
Students work in small groups with individualized attention from experienced instructors. The school has a staff of 14 teachers with varying specialties. “Instructors are qualified in all different ways. Some of them have been professional performers. Some have just trained with me, or at other circus schools,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy has had her hand in circus arts for a while. “I performed as a juggler and an aerialist for many years. Not in a particular circus troupe, but freelance in theatrical shows, for corporate events, festivals, things like that. My husband, Greg, is now the performer of the family. He performs full time as a professional juggler, touring around the world,” she says.
Whatever their background, it’s clear the instructors share a love for performing. Driggs, the juggling teacher, joined the school five months ago. “I saw a circus when I was 13 and I was more intrigued by the juggler than the circus,” he says. He went home and searched the internet for juggling instructions. It soon became a passion. “I’ve been performing and juggling for five years,” he says.
Again, it’s those childhood circus experiences that capture imaginations. Sometimes they even turn into careers. Or at least a trapeze class in Germantown.
Watch the video below.