This circus comes to town juggling fun with life lessons
Seattle is hosting its first American Youth Circus Festival, in which 300 students and instructors are honing their skills in circus-related events.
Seattle Times staff reporter
They’ve come from as far away as Tampa, New York — even London — for workshops on topics such as “Intermediate Club Passing,” “Human Pyramid to the Max” and “Totally Useless Skills.”
By the time they head home Sunday, these visitors, from 8 to 21 years old, will be slightly better at juggling, unicycle riding or flying on a trapeze.
More importantly, they’ll be a step closer to being strong, confident, goal-oriented, community-minded young adults.
Seattle is hosting its first American Youth Circus Festival, drawing 300 students and instructors from across the country — and a handful from beyond — for five days of lessons and practice sessions in dozens of circus-related skills.
“This is what we were hoping for,” said Jo Montgomery, looking out at a sea of activity in a Georgetown warehouse complex Thursday morning.
Nine years ago, Montgomery, a pediatric nurse practitioner, co-founded Seattle’s School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts (SANCA), the host organization for this week’s festival.
Since its birth in Sarasota, Fla., in 2001, the festival has been held each odd-numbered year. Many attendees are members of circus schools, clubs, troupes in their hometowns.
Some will seek careers in the performing arts, but promoters of circus instruction say that in any career, these students can benefit from skills developed here, such as a willingness to learn, to improve, to work as part of a team and to break a daunting task into smaller, doable steps.
Over the length of the festival, which includes some 150 workshops, participants have time both to sharpen existing skills and sample new activities.
Case in point: Ciara O’Connell, 17, of Tampa, Fla., in the past has done stilt-walking, contortion and aerial-hoop performing. On Thursday, she tried riding a unicycle, not offered at her troupe at home. With a buddy alongside to help steady her, she gradually made progress balancing on the single wheel and getting it to move forward.
“At first you’re afraid you’re going to fall on your face,” she said, “but you keep doing it, and the fear goes away.”
Brothers Michael and Christopher Patterson, of London, 17 and 14, have been practicing circus skills for about nine years, dating to a day their mother intended to put them into tennis lessons.
When she found out tennis wasn’t offered at their gym that day, she saw “circus skills” on the schedule and signed them up.
“And since then I’ve been hooked,” said Michael.
On Thursday, the brothers were trying out a “German wheel,” in which a performer spins a kind of a cartwheel inside a round frame.
The most unusual workshop may have been “Totally Useless Skills,” taught by Rick Davis, of New Hampshire, who was among the founding members of the American Youth Circus Organization (AYCO) in 2001. He said it includes “disappearing body parts, pencil tricks, palm reading, yodeling, odd finger snapping” and more.
They’re simple physical tasks that might first look impossible, but which can be readily learned, he said.
Learning underlies every aspect of the festival, and local students are also taking advantage of the offerings.
Emma Cady, 15, of Seattle, planned to attend a workshop in mime, even though her core circus activity is performing dancelike maneuvers while suspended on a colorful fabric strip.
That event, aerial fabric, “is an amazing physical activity,” she said. “It keeps you in shape and gives you a feeling of accomplishment.”
Aidan Aprile, 13, also of Seattle, has become such an accomplished juggler that on Thursday he was able to help teach new students, which he finds particularly satisfying.
He has performed at senior centers, fundraisers, parties and events, and said the nervousness that comes with being on stage gradually dissipates.
“You surprise yourself by learning to do something you might not have thought you could,” he said.
SANCA, which has more than 1,000 active students weekly, doesn’t turn away students who can’t afford the activity, and has awarded some 1,250 scholarships since 2004, backers say.
Chuck Johnson, SANCA co-founder and current AYCO president, said the wide range of activities offered through circus programs make it more inclusive than the gymnastics he did in his school days.
“Gymnastics is about competing,” he said. “What we do is about working together.”
Jack Broom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2222