There are plenty of places to learn juggling, tumbling, and trapeze. Locally, the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts teaches at the recreational level for would-be performers from 8 months to 80 years.
Its founder Shana Kennedy wants to step up the game.
“When I first moved to Philadelphia in the late ’90s, people were horrified when I said I was a circus performer,” said Kennedy, who used to swing on the trapeze. “They didn’t want me to hang a trapeze or rig a high wire. It was seen as dangerous and weird. It’s not like that anymore.”
Kennedy has since found a lot of support in Philadelphia’s institutions to accommodate circus acts, but serious students of circus performance still must go to Europe or Australia to learn the craft thoroughly.
Kennedy wants to see a critical mass of full-time professionals creating their own circus companies, evolving a uniquely American style of circus. She is set to launch Circadium, a three-year, professional training program for careers in circus performance. It will be the only such program in the country, she said.
Most circus performers, including trapeze artist Nicole Burgio, are largely self-taught. All through her childhood she was a gymnast, but then she went to college to become an academic.
“I got my master’s in psychology,” said Burgio. “Then I saw the circus come through town and thought, ‘Man, I could really do that.'”
Burgio took years of classes on her own until she started landing paying jobs in cabarets, festivals, cruise ships, and private parties. Now, an instructor at PSCA, she said a professional school would have made her journey easier.
“It’s not just skill, but how to be a professional,” she said. “How do you create and compose a show? How do you rig your lights? How do you know your rigging is safe? You think somebody is going to rig your trapeze 30 feet in the air, and you’re like, ‘Oh, you wanted me to do that?'”
The Circadium school, the vocational offshoot of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, is close to securing a building in Germantown — a former church with exceptionally high ceilings. It is expected to open in the fall of 2017.