Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The art of circus school

Photo by Florangela Davila
Anna Partridge of Mercer Island was one of the first students at The School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts when it opened in 2004. She'll be spending her summer as part of a children's circus troupe in Vermont.

There's a downside to hanging out at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) and that is, you start to feel really boring.

There's Nickolai Pirak, an expert juggler. And Erica Rubinstein, who basically juggles people.

"If you can imagine a 12-foot-long bar that’s kind of like a beam and a trampoline, but supported by people. Our flier stands in the middle of the bar," Rubinstein says.

At any given hour, in this huge warehouse in South Seattle, you'll find teeny girls spinning plates in one corner while a fortysomething-year-old man practices cartwheels. A teenager scampers up a piece of fabric some 20 feet off the ground.

The physical artistry found here is dazzling. But the school is more about going on an adventure and building confidence.

About 1,000 people take class here every week, making SANCA one of the biggest, if not the biggest circus school in the country.

History of the school

SANCA co-founder Jo Montgomery believes strongly in a learning environment where all ages and all abilities can mingle.

"I think it's great for the little ones to see what the big kids are doing," she says. "When any of the performers are in town for Zinzanni want to train we let them come in here and train. The little kids watch," she says.

"One time, one of the hand balancers was standing on her hands, rotating her legs around and there was a little girl waiting for her class, like a 6-year-old, and she was looking at her with a bit of ennui and said, 'Well when I’m that age I’ll do that.'" Montgomery laughs.

Montgomery has a background in gymnastics and she's used to using her body in unusual ways. Like being a human ladder.

"When my daughter was young we used to do it all the time, actually in the aisles of Fred Meyer, to reach the top shelves since I’m short. She would climb up and stand up on my shoulders to get stuff," Montgomery recalls.

Montgomery also works as a nurse practitioner and she’d been thinking about a way to keep children physically active, in a setting that wasn’t as competitive as team sports. When she met some circus performers, the idea for a circus school clicked. She figured all the different kinds of circus skills would appeal to people of all abilities.

"Some people might be good at juggling. Others are good at balance. Others might be strong. It doesn’t really prefer a certain skill set or a certain body size."

She co-founded the school 7 years ago, with Chuck Johnson, a former stunt man who also has a background in running circus programs.  He’d seen how confident people would get when they went out and tried something new.

"Being able to walk across a tightrope or being able to juggle three balls or do a flip on the trampoline allows people to think and to realize they can do other things they didn’t think they can do," he says.

A refuge, a place where you can fly, and a way to get an adrenaline rush

Johnson also teaches at the school.  As he walks through the warehouse he stops to coach a boy in the art of juggling three clubs.

The boy is 14-year-old Zach Holmberg. The circus school became a refuge when he was getting bullied at his regular school.

"That was happening a lot to me. And I didn’t have anything like this that I could say,  'Hey, I’m happy.' "

 He spends about 8 hours a week here and he’d like to one day get into a professional circus program. So he practices.

"For me it means go do what you love. And I put all my heart into it," he says.

When stay-at-home mom April Sargeant heads to circus school, she changes her Facebook status to: I’m off to fly.

She’s flies on a trapeze.

"It’s just a blast to fly through the air and accomplish something. It's a real accomplishment to do something right, when you’re up there, because it’s all you."

Then of course there’s the adrenaline rush.

Like rolling across the floor inside something that looks like a giant-sized hamster toy.

"Oh my gosh, that’s so crazy!" 17-year-old Anna Partridge squeals. She's just climbed into a German Wheel and is rolling in one direction and in the other.

And just like that, she falls under the spell of circus school. 

The School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts is holding an open house on July 9.

Florangela Davila is KNKX’s news director. A journalist in Seattle since 1992, she’s earned numerous individual and team honors in print, online and broadcast, most recently three regional Murrows for KNKX.