Let's get physical

Stretch your skills with circus arts

by Len Lear
Posted 11/28/23

Repetitive winter fitness routines can be boring. Your mind may wander. That doesn’t happen at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

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Let's get physical

Stretch your skills with circus arts


Repetitive winter fitness routines can be boring. Your mind may wander to what’s for dinner, your next dental appointment or why is the dog scratching so much.

That doesn’t happen at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. At the popular Mt. Airy destination, you can say goodbye to boring.

Founded by two former Cirque de Soleil performers, husband and wife team Greg and Shana Kennedy, the school offers 60 different classes and takes students of all ages, starting at 3. One former aerial arts student, Alice Dustin, was in her 70s.

The space itself is soaring – and inspirational. The 28,000-square-foot building was formerly a Catholic Church and school, and comes with 40-foot ceilings, stained glass windows and an observation gallery. In addition to a total of 10 classrooms, there is a 5,000-square-foot sanctuary and a 5,000-square-foot gymnasium. 

The school’s training studio for beginning and advanced children and adults has plenty of space for aerials, juggling, unicycling, tightwire, tumbling, acrobatics and physical conditioning. Students can choose from all manner of surprising activities, from learning how to swing in an aerial trapeze to taking a tight wire workshop – which involves walking a wire suspended above the ground. Apparently, some students can do this in high heels. 

“The really great thing about the circus arts is that you have to be completely focused – you cannot get distracted when you are up in space,” said Kitsie O'Neill, executive director of the circus school.

Classes are for all kinds of different people – many of whom do not consider themselves to be athletes, O’Neill said. And while the thought of hanging upside might be intimidating, said staff member Melissa Mellon, most people quickly find out that the school is much more than that. 

“What happens is, you find something you never thought you'd be good at, then you nurture that skill and you meet a community of friends,” Mellon said. “We figure out the things the students are interested in, guide them, and help them take it further.”

And it appears to be working. The school is growing in popularity – it now has about 500 students – and was recently awarded “Best of Philly Winner” for children's classes by Philadelphia Magazine. 

“Whether it's tumbling, trampoline, or wire walking, it is not important to be the best. It's important to be creative and have fun doing it,” said Adam Woolley, a former head coach at the school who has served on the Board of Directors for the American Circus Educators Association and is currently a substitute teacher at the circus school. “If you are willing to put in the time and practice and fail over and over again, then you will start to make progress.

“It seems too hard and out of reach when you watch others do these things, but when you try them yourself, you realize 'I can do this amazing thing I never thought I could.'”

From recreational to professional

For those who really take to it, there’s also a possible next step. 

When the school moved from its first location at 5900 Greene Street to its new, much larger campus in 2017, it also opened a sister school, Circadium, a professional circus program that Shana heads as executive director.

While the circus arts school is a recreational circus program, Circadium is a licensed vocational school for circus performers that offers a Diploma of Circus Arts. The two schools share space, equipment, and some staff, but they are structurally and operationally separate. 

The three-year degree program is currently in the process of getting accreditation, Kennedy said. They expect to get that next year, O’Neill said, making it “the first and only accredited circus school in the U.S.”

Circadium started out small – with just five graduates in the first class. And when the Covid lockdown began in 2020, the 36 people on campus – including staff, instructors, and 28 students – made a plan to operate as an isolated community. Many of the students lived on campus all year. 

“In 2020, when Covid hit, we were set to graduate our first class, and we were planning to do a show at the Kimmel Center, but it all fell apart,” Kennedy said. “So it was very tricky to figure out not only how to keep the program running but how to get these students' careers on track.”

Most of the 2020 graduates were able to find work as theaters, circuses, and festivals reopened, Kennedy said. 

The school has now grown, and this year’s graduating class is do we know how many?

In addition to performance, Circadium students learn about arts administration, networking, reading and writing contracts, how to promote themselves, creating a website, applying for grants, and producing resumes and press releases. They also learn how to avoid the pitfalls young artists often fall into.

Several staff and board members of both circus arts and Circadium have gone on to have impressive professional circus careers. 

Thom Wall, for example, was a juggler with Cirque de Soleil. Vanessa Thomas Smith was a ringmaster with the Big Apple Circus and was with Barnum & Bailey, and was the first African-American female ringmaster in circus history. 

Eric Geoffrey was a trapeze clown with Barnum and Bailey and a wire walker with the Funicular Circus. Juggling coach Luther Bangert has performed all over the world and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest period of time juggling balls while a sword was down his throat, 11.7 seconds. Several other graduates and staff members work on cruise ships. 

For more information, visit phillycircus.com or circadium.com.