The Philadelphia School of Circus Acts: Clowning around is serious business

Approaching the Philadelphia School of Circus Acts from the front entrance in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, it appeared as though I was entering an old warehouse. Converted into a playhouse for trapeze artists and their students, the 3,200 square foot arena looked more like a two-story workshop than a workspace for some serious athletes known as circus performers. But once inside, work I did. Dressed in my usual gym attire — black yoga pants and my black Adidas zipper-up to match — I had no idea what I was getting into.

When I signed up to train for an hour and a half with some of the nation’s most talented and experienced circus performers, I thought that a little conditioning and swinging around would be a nice alternative to a Saturday afternoon spent reading indoors.

I have always thrived on the adrenaline, the thirst for pushing myself to the limit, and to working muscles that I didn’t know I had, but organized workouts, let alone acrobatic activity in any sense, have not been a fixed part of my life for the better part of the last few years. Little did I know that within the ninety minutes that I would spend in that gymnasium, this acrobat-in-training would endure a demanding obstacle course that would impact both mind and body. 

Circus training: Challenged at new heights

I was ushered upstairs to the observation deck, at my arrival, where I could see a juggling class finishing up to my right, but my eyes were drawn to the main area straight ahead. Equipped with ribbons, ropes, and padded mats, this acrobat in training could see different kinds of apparatus hung from the ceiling.

I recognized the four trapeze bars that suspended from the high ceilings, each of which hanging higher than the next. Fear and excitement consumed me as I was handed a customary waiver to sign. I gave them my Hancock and waited patiently to be summoned to the main floor and begin my adventure.

Owner and freelance trapeze artist, Shana Kennedy, welcomed me and the other twenty-four wide-eyed beginners all sitting cross-legged on the gym floor. Assuring us that each of the three instructors to lead our training session that day were professional circus performance and fully aware of our varying athletic abilities, Shana explained that we would separate into three separate groups engaging in different activities on a three-circuit rotation.

But before we were led off into the world of ropes, ribbons, and trapezes, we formed a circle and got right into a cardio warm-up. We jumped like jacks and stretched out our arms, backs, shoulders, and legs like toddlers conducting their early morning stretches.

Our first station was led by Kendra, a specialist in rope and aerial acts who had traveled around the world performing and training with the most skilled circus performers. We were instructed to grab the thick rope hanging from the ceiling with our dominant hand and wrap the bottom part around our dominant foot, thereby creating an anchor for which our other foot was to jump upon.

Once each of our feet were in place, our arms were to serve as our launching point to ascend the rope. I was unable to parlay further than my initial position a few inches above the ground, at first, but after a tenacious effort encouraged a repetitious “Yes, you CAN do this!” in my head, I found myself slightly higher than my start position, and my new friend, Jessica, also a first-time “roper,” clapped her hands in supportive applause.

Moving on up: From trapezes to ropes

The second station involved working with the static trapeze, which unlike its flying complement, stays in place and serves as an apparatus upon which various positions are assumed on, above, and underneath its bar. A bit intimidating once you have your hands firmly on either end of the foot-long trapeze bar and find yourself flailing your legs above your head in order to place the back of your knees on the bar, the trapeze bar seemed to be mocking me as I tried to surmount the obstacle of getting my five-foot ten-inch body above that bar.

I started on the bar closest to the ground and once I got my knees over that bar, the discomfort that ensued was compounded by the fact that I was not even half way to my destination as I found myself sitting on top of the bar with my hands comfortably grasping the ropes that held the bar in place.

My instructor, Shana, picked up on my struggle and physically spotted me until I hassled my upper body up high enough to transfer my bottom to the top of the bar, and grab those ropes. Once I found myself atop the bar, my circus instructor told me to slowly lower my back below it and hang free with only my flexed feet stretched out beyond my knees to keep me from falling. I looked around, hanging upside down, with the all blood rushing to my head, and an unexpected reality dawned on me; I felt free and accomplished.

Using all the strength that I didn’t know I had, I thrust myself back upwards and grabbed onto those ropes, lowered my legs beneath the bar, and pushed them towards my face in the pike position. My fellow trapeze beginners clapped and shouted words of encouragement as I managed to dismount properly as I caught my breath in time to move on to the ribbons. Bruised, tired, and feeling more out of shape than I had in years, I decided to give this last activity my best effort.

Three ribbons were presented in sets of two, by color, and were already tied and assembled for our directed activity. The first yellow rope was knit into a knot for our bottoms to sit upon as we threw our legs up, sprawled into a split as we held onto the upper part of the ribbons for dear life.

The acrobatic life

As with each station, we were to attempt a set of acrobatic activities with awareness of our unique athletic abilities and limitations, by starting with the lower risk activities and advancing in difficulty as it made sense.  I did not make it past the upside-down elevation on the ribbons, but I was still happy with my progress and decided to end my session on a good note.

Together again, the whole class met to perform cool-down stretches before Shana took center stage again and thanked us for our participation. She also spoke about the rewards of being persistent as one works toward a life of aerial acts, trapeze performances, and circus acrobatics.

Sweaty and sore, I sat thinking about her words while simultaneously feeling the emerging pain in my body. It was inspiring to think about the progress I made in just 5400 seconds, as those 90 minutes represented more than just time spent on a new workout, but a rekindled confidence in my body’s potential to do great things.  

So, with my callused hands and inability to yet fully outstretch my arms without pain, I walked out of the gymnasium with appreciation for how much flexibility and strength it takes to become talented circus performers, as well as a revitalized motivation to persist in my athletic pursuits in order to respect the body that continues to surprise me every time I challenge it in new ways.


Photo credit: Christa M. Thomas