Rooting early passion for the circus

Running away to Philadelphia School of Circus Arts

3 minute read
A man helps a young girl on an aerial trapeze fabric outdoors, the Ben Franklin bridge in the background

In an adult world plagued by efficiency, arid optimization, serious power lunches, and virtual reality, the circus—with its element of trapeze danger, fanciful juggling, and unicycle balancing—is an enchanting respite. At least it is for hundreds of folks ranging in age from three to 83, who attend the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, which began in 2000. The circus is their passion. I took my 10-year-old daughter Rachel to the Hand to Hand Circus Festival on Saturday, June 3, at the Fringe Arts Festival on the Delaware River Waterfront. For adults, the circus is something to escape to, but what is the draw, I wondered, for children?

Discovering circus arts

Rachel was wrapped in fuchsia aerial hammocks, and within minutes one of the fine circus instructors had her hanging upside down, her feet wrapped in the gossamer cloth. “How did it feel?” I asked. “Like I was floating and swimming through air and wrapped up and hidden,” she said, wide-eyed and glowing.

Carl, 12, said his parents dragged him here; a rare dissenting voice in an otherwise enthusiastic crowd of kids enamored by the circus. “I’d rather be playing video games,” he said. Sophia, four, loves the circus. “The balance beams are my favorite!” Ali, seven, said, “I am not scared to fly; it’s not too hard and not too easy.”

Circus School instructor Terry Brennan is instructing kids in juggling. “You throw up one ball, and then the other higher, Rachel. You don’t need to be perfect: just let er’ rip,” said Brennan. Rachel was concentrating on keeping the balls in the air, on her rhythm, completely absorbed in the activity. The Tiger Mom mother in me could see how juggling could help with concentrating on learning algebra and history.

Executive director Shana Kennedy, who was trained in Europe as an aerialist and juggler, also runs the Circadium, which is a college-level program for professional artists influenced by the European circus tradition.

I asked Satia, 12, who is part of the youth circus troupe, about her love for circus: “I wanted to be a contortionist, but I fell in love with trapeze, juggling, and circus camps.” When I asked Eric Jeffrey, a lifelong circus performer who worked for Ringling Brothers and self-proclaimed “facilitator of awesome,” whether the circus attracts a certain kind of kid, he said: “There are things that appeal to so many different sensibilities. We see kids who are often marginalized with sports who shine with circus and discover a confidence in their own pace. It’s profoundly beautiful.”

Satia’s friend Isabelle Owens, 13, shared that after four years her favorite activity is the unicycle. “I love it. It’s both a team sport and a solo thing.” Clara, is a blue-haired girl who was there with her blue-haired Dad. “It’s so much fun. I wish I had the strings at home,” he said. Clara nodded in blue-headed agreement.

It’s an old dream to run away to the circus. For a few hours, these children and adults don’t need to run away: it’s right here in Philadelphia.

Above: FringeArts's Hand to Hand Festival was an opportunity for children and youths to connect with circus arts. (Photo by Lisa Grunberg.)

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation