by Sue Ann Rybak
As a little girl growing up in Natick, Mass., Shana Kennedy, executive director of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, 5900A Greene St. in Germantown, was mesmerized by the circus.
Shana lives in Germantown with her husband, Gregg Kennedy, an award-winning performance artist who recently performed a solo juggling act in Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem,” and their three children, Baz, Ayla and Isa. She opened the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts in 2006 and has been looking to do more.
Next year, she plans to open Circadium, which will be the first nonprofit, full-time, three-year, professional training school for circus artists in the United States.
It’s the product of a lifelong dream for Kennedy, who took to the circus when she was a child.
“Every year a traditional three-ring circus would come to town,” Kennedy said, “and every summer I would go and fall in love with the show. Every year, I would come back wanting to be something different in the show – an animal trainer, a juggler or an aerialist.”
When she was 15, Kennedy found and purchased a unicycle and began to practice.
“That was a launching point for me,”she said. “From there, I taught myself how to juggle and got connected with local juggling clubs. And up until that point, my parents kept dismissing it, as just being a silly whim. In high school, they just thought it was some wacky thing I did.”
After graduating from high school, Kennedy, who had always been studious, was offered a National Merit Scholarship to attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Still consumed by wanting to learn circus arts, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go. She agreed to go for at least a year at the urging of her parents.
“And very quickly, I determined this was not where I wanted to be,” she said. “I wanted to be at circus school.”
In 1995, she attended Circomedia in England, where she trained as an aerialist and juggler. She soon realized she had an affinity for the trapeze.
“On my first day, my coach, the renowned Jackie Welbourne, helped me climb up a rope,” Kennedy said. “She told me to put my hand in the loop at the top, and she spun me around. It blew my mind. It was a huge shock to my body as well. The daily class included pull-ups and sit-ups hanging from a bar. Nights at home, my arms, shoulders and back ached tremendously. I couldn’t open doors or lift a gallon of milk. Those were the days of the greatest self-doubt, loneliness and fear that I’ve experienced as a circus artist. Could I do this?
“Pushing through adversity makes you stronger, and surviving those first two weeks did that for me in a very clear and physical way. The course ahead held continual challenges – from acrobatics to clowning – and the year was full of sweat and tears. It transformed me, not only my physical strength, but my confidence, my range of skills, my communications styles and my very identity.”
After attending circus school, Kennedy decided to return to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in French. Because of the number of AP classes she had taken in high school, she was able to complete a degree at GW in three years.
When she left school, Kennedy began performing where and whenever she could. But she soon realized performing was more demanding than she expected.
“I didn’t enjoy the training and felt bad about myself unless my performance was perfect,” she said. “The rewards I got from being on stage were not enough to balance those things. I think of performing as a bit of a roller coaster, where you are putting 100 percent of your energy out on stage all at once, and then you crash.”
Kennedy said she soon realized she needed a more structured and routine schedule. So she began teaching out of her home. Kennedy said she quickly discovered that teaching came very naturally to her.
“I can find myself completely immersed in the experience,”she added. “Helping people discover the thing that changed my life.”
She said teaching women how to use their upper body muscles “to maneuver themselves upside down and do something beautiful in the air” was extremely gratifying.
Circadium will be the logical extension of Kennedy’s teaching mission. Students will not only have the opportunity to learn acrobatics, aerials, juggling, and object manipulation, but also academic classes such as business planning, history of circus and marketing, she said.
“The school is very deeply based in physical theatrical, creativity and entrepreneurship,” she said. “It’s the first full-time circus school that is licensed by the state. It’s a place where students can incubate their ideas, not just for individual students, but for circus as an art form. Circus in this country is kind of stagnant compared to where it is in Europe.”
Kennedy said that Kryzsztof Soroczynski, a world-class acrobat and coach, who recently spent 15 years as the acrobatic performance designer for the contemporary circus company Cirque Eloize, is just one of the many talented and gifted instructors at Circadium. Soroczynski has worked closely with such great circus directors as Franco Dragone and Daniel Finzi Pasca.
“Philadelphia is the perfect place to launch America’s first school offering a higher education program in circus arts,” Kennedy said. “There has been an explosion of interest in circus arts in our region, with circus arts becoming part of the core fabric of our arts scene. We are thrilled that our circus hub will now welcome and connect students from around the globe as they pursue a diploma in modern circus.”
For more information about Circadium or to apply online, go to www.circadium.com.
This posted has been updated on April 24, 2017. The original article erroneously reported that it was state accredited or licensed. That is wrong. Please note the correction above. Correction made by Sue Ann Rybak, Associate Editor of The Chestnut Hill Local.