Residents gawked from stoops and car windows as people flew dozens of feet above their heads. Nestled on the edge of Olde Kensington, Fly School Circus Arts treats residents to their very own circus in North Philadelphia. There are no elephants, lion tamers or clowns here, only a handful of students defying gravity on the flying trapeze.
Children sat on top of cars, on bicycles and watched form the street as the students swung on bars and tumbled heels over head.
“It’s cool,” one young girl watching said before going up to the instructor and asking about classes.
Fly School’s founder and lead instructor Mary Kelly Rayel said a small crowd usually gathers to watch her classes.
The trapeze school brings an unconventional flavor to the neighborhood, and no matter what time of day, the community always comes out to root for the students and gaze in wonder at a sight normally reserved for a circus tent.
“All types, all shapes and sizes, all ages can come at the same time, which is great,” Rayel said. “Community outreach is in the plan if I stay in this location. I certainly want everyone to be able to come and enjoy flying trapeze.”
Last year, Fly School performed for the community at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. Rayel started teaching at the trapeze set-up on Fifth Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue at the beginning of this year. Previously, she taught lessons out of Bucks County, where she lives.
Since she began in her new location, Rayel has attracted students from the surrounding area. Kris Cowperthwaite, an emergency room doctor at Temple University Hospital, arrived at the school about a year ago from her apartment only five blocks away and swung from the trapeze for the first time when her baby was five weeks old.
“It clears your brain,” Cowperthwaite said. “You can’t think about anything else when you’re up there.”
Rayel, a 24-year circus veteran, took the safety of her students as a top priority as they flew, strapped into harnesses and guided by a rope Rayel swung from each end of the trapeze netting. At times, she raised her voice at students who did not perform moves at the right time, as it could become unsafe if they strayed too far from her instructions.
The people who work for the school are not circus professionals. Rayel drew her talent from the community. Her two assistant instructors, David Struewing and Rachel Rovlin, came from Temple University, only a few blocks from the trapeze location.
Struewing and Rovlin are “frequent flyers,” students who have trained often enough to perform in shows and rise to the level of instructors.
“People pull over to the side of the road just to watch us do trapeze,” Struewing said. “School buses go by with kids hanging out of windows screaming. The most common thing people shout is, ‘Don’t Jump!’ which is funny because that’s what we’re here to do is jump and fly.”
Samantha Leslie, a Temple student, said she drove past the trapeze several times and got the idea to try it out. She arrived recently for the first time and brought along her father, Sean, her younger brother, Mason, and her uncle, Mike.
“It’s the thrill of it,” Leslie said. “I knew I had to try it.”
Leslie and her family said their goal for the first time was to have fun as a family together. As they watched each other twirl, tumble and fumble on the trapeze, friendly rivalries emerged. Brothers Sean and Mike heckled one another from the stands, and even took a few digs out on Samantha. After they descended from the net and the nerves faded, they had nothing but encouragement for each other.
They each progressed as the lessons wore on, culminating in a final display of skilled called “the catch,” when students jump from the trapeze bar and are caught in mid-air by an instructor.
To prepare for each catch, instructor Struewing swung free from a bar on the far side of the netting while the student was strapped into a harness. Struewing gauged the height of the student’s flight, then hing upside down as they were released. After the student performed their moves, they jumped into the air and Struewing swung toward them with surprising ease. In order to perform a successful catch, timing must be perfect.
“Like threading a needle,” Struewing said after he barely caught a student’s hands that had nearly slipped out of his grip.
After Struewing caught Sean launching off a knee-hang, Sean’s brother Mike yelled from the stands, “That’s a heavy load.”
Even after some lighthearted verbal sparring, the Leslie family said they enjoyed the class and had fun, and that they would come again.
– Text, images and video by Joe Gilbride and Grace Nonnemaker.