by Stacia Friedman
Alice Dustin, 72, likes to get high. Not on drugs or alcohol. But on the flying trapeze at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts (PSCA) in Germantown (5900 Greene St.) where, twice a week, the Ardmore grandmother takes aerial arts and acrobatic classes.
“It all started with a photograph of a young woman on a trapeze that I saw in a magazine,” says Dustin, a vivacious, silver-haired woman. “I was so taken with it that I painted the image.”
At the time, Dustin was a retired French and ESL teacher whose most daring activity to date was taking oil painting classes, a long-deferred dream. “I never wanted my children to feel they were second in my life and I knew that once I started painting, I would be totally immersed.”
Dustin was right. Her Impressionist-inspired landscapes and still-life paintings went on to win many awards and are now shown in galleries in Philadelphia, New York, Delaware and Massachusetts. For over 12 years, Dustin has taught painting at Main Line School Night.
Her painting of a circus performer continued to haunt Dustin until she attended a student show at PSCA. “I thought: God, that looks like fun!” she says. Classes were then held in the home of the Shana Kennedy, PSCA’s founder, whose husband performs in Cirque du Soleil.
Dustin started taking classes in Kennedy’s home in 1992. When PSCA moved to its current location in a former warehouse, Dustin helped with the construction of a space large enough for several classes to be held at the same time. Over the years, she advanced from Chinese acrobatics, juggling and riding the unicycle to working the “silks,” brightly colored swathes of fabric hanging from ceiling hooks. The goal isn’t merely to climb the silks, but to learn an intricate pattern of slip-knots by which participants perform a series of increasingly complex aerial poses.
While Dustin and a half-dozen other women in leotards practice on the silks under the watchful eye of an instructor, a young man juggles and a sylph in a black tutu swings gracefully from a lyra, a metal hoop suspended 20 feet off the hardwood floor. A dozen unicycles hang on a wall. Spectators and those getting up the nerve to sign up for a class watch from a glass-enclosed balcony.
The show must — and does — go on
While many seniors embrace new hobbies with the best of intentions, only to drop salsa or Portuguese classes a few weeks later, Dustin is that rare individual who follows through and continually challenges herself.
“At 50, I learned how to ride a unicycle, and I also did judo. At 60, I took up juggling, and at 70, I started doing acrobatics and aerial arts,” says Dustin who admits to being less than five feet tall.
“I don’t regard myself as a daredevil or thrill seeker,” she says, “However, I don’t like to feel endangered, and I’m afraid of heights.” You wouldn’t know it when Dustin climbs up the silks, loops the fabric around her ankles and hangs by her heels like a bat!
What does her family think of Dustin’s high-flying hobby? “My husband is used to me,” she says with a knowing grin, “and my grandson was thrilled when I came to his first grade class and taught juggling.”
Ironically, you won’t find Dustin at the gym or jogging. “I find exercise just for the sake of exercise boring,” she says. Which is not to imply Dustin was ever a couch potato. Throughout her life, she has always been physically active, whether cross-country skiing, hiking or swimming with family. Mentally active too: Dustin holds a master’s degree in teaching from Harvard and a Ph.D from Penn.
Her current regime includes handstand classes to build strength and endurance and working on the silks, alongside classmates young enough to be her grandchildren. “It comes slower to me than these kids, but I can still make progress,” says Dustin. “Most things get worse with age. There’s something about the ability to improve that’s very gratifying.”
PSCA’s annual student show brings out the ham in Dustin. “I love the costumes, the choreography, the music and working in an ensemble,” she says. In the past, she did a trapeze act as a matador with a jaunty mustache and a comedy routine with two other older women dressed as cleaning ladies with yellow plastic gloves. “We hoisted ourselves up on the trapeze, as if we didn’t know what we were doing. It was hysterical,” she says. “I also performed as an old lady and did a handstand on a wheelchair.”
Is there anything left on her bucket list? “Maybe the tight wire,” says Dustin. “I don’t see myself stopping. This is my life, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”
Reprinted, with permission, from Newsworks. For more information, visit Elder-Activists.org. Stacia Friedman is a Mt. Airy resident, humorist and freelance writer. In her novels, “Tender is the Brisket” and “Nothing Toulouse,” she hones in on women writers who are, in her description, “on their way up, down and sideways.”
More information about PSCA at www.phillycircus.com.