Seattle Times article: Circus festival marks SANCA’s 10th anniversary

“Circus festival marks SANCA’s 10th anniversary”

Seattle’s School for Acrobatics and New Circus Arts celebrates its 10th anniversary with a Summer Circus Festival, Aug. 15-24, 2014, that highlights its move in professional circus production. The school also maintains its commitment to serving youngsters from every background.

By Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times arts writer

Ten years ago, Seattle’s School for Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) opened in a 1,100-square-foot warehouse space in SoDo. In its first few weeks, it attracted a dozen or so pupils.

By 2013, SANCA — the only all-ages circus school in Seattle offering instruction in a wide variety of disciplines — had expanded to a 25,000-square-foot campus in Georgetown, with 3,300 registered students.

That makes it, by some estimates, the largest circus school in the country.

To celebrate that amazing trajectory, SANCA is holding its first Summer Circus Festival, Aug. 15-24. David Crellin, better known on the local vaudeville circuit as emcee Armitage Shanks, is directing the festival, which features Acrobatic Conundrum, IMPulse Circus Collective and numerous other talents.

Also being celebrated: the completion of the first year of SANCA’s professional training program.

“Seattle has actually become a major circus town in the States,” says Crellin.

But when SANCA co-founder Jo Montgomery came up with the idea for the school in 2003, she didn’t have professional circus possibilities in mind. She simply wanted “to keep people moving,” she said in an interview last month.

Montgomery, then 44, was a nurse practitioner at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, where she still works three days a week. There she kept encountering kids who, she says, were struggling with “being inert and overweight and not having the money to go to cool places, camps or sporting clubs.”

The circus idea came from an adult gymnastics class Montgomery started taking in 1999 that, she says, was “feeding my soul like crazy.” In that class she met members of Circus Contraption, a Seattle troupe that ran from 1998 to 2010. Their brand of “new circus” offered theatrical shows focusing on human skills, without any animals involved. Until then Montgomery had only been familiar with traditional Ringling Brothers-style three-ring circuses.

Her instructor Chuck Johnson, a 50-year-old former high-school gymnast and lifelong circus enthusiast, impressed her so deeply that, four years later, she invited him to be SANCA’s co-founder.

One thing they agreed on: No kids would be turned away from SANCA’s doors for lack of funds.

“If kids can’t pay,” Montgomery remembers thinking, “we’ll have a scholarship fund.”

To make that possible, the two of them took no salary for the first years of the school’s existence, relying instead on income from other jobs.

“I was so naive, but I was determined,” Montgomery says, adding, “We balance each other. Chuck has great vision, and I’m a tightwad.”

It was never their goal, Johnson says, to be the biggest circus school in the country. Instead, it expanded as demand for classes dictated.

SANCA’s new professional-track program evolved naturally from that expansion, Crellin says. While the school was grounding its students thoroughly in “the athletics of circus,” it wasn’t providing them with instruction on stagecraft, character development and other theatrical essentials. The task of Crellin, a co-founder of Circus Contraption, was to work with students on “actually making shows.”

Aiding in that effort are Acrobatic Conundrum and IMPulse. Most members of these two performance-troupes-in-residence are coaches at SANCA. Some are former SANCA students who literally joined the circus.

Case in point: IMPulse co-founder Arne Bystrom, who started taking classes at SANCA at age 16, went to circus school in Quebec City and now is a dazzling professional juggler.

Given the students’ passion for circus, Crellin notes, it made sense to create a program where they could do “intensive training with an eye towards performing.”

The festival is part of that performance agenda, and Crellin hopes it sets the template for “an in-earnest circus festival” featuring local and itinerant talents.

Johnson and Montgomery’s commitment to younger students remains firm. SANCA’s student body is roughly 75 percent kids and 25 percent adults. It has 10 full-time staff and 40 part-time coaches.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about SANCA is the way it accommodates special-needs kids.

“It wasn’t in my thoughts at the beginning,” Montgomery says. “Then I was approached by someone who said, ‘My son has spinal bifida. Will you work with him?’”

Another of her students is a young man who’s blind. “He came to me for a physical. I asked the parents, ‘What are you doing for exercise?’ And they looked at me like I was crazy. I was like: ‘What? There’s nothing wrong with him except that he can’t see.’ And he’s very good.”

Safety is the number-one priority, Johnson says. “All of our staff believes in a philosophy of safety — emotional safety — and in cooperation. And we have key words that we never use.”

Among those words are “can’t,” “don’t,” “bad” and “wrong.”

If a child says, “I can’t,” the response will be: “Well, you can’t yet.”

“Circus,” Montgomery concludes with a smile, “is very adaptable.”

Michael Upchurch:

SANCA’s Summer Circus Festival opens August 15th

SANCA’s Summer Circus Festival opens August 15th

by Maia LeDoux last modified Sep 04, 2014 10:44 PM


Join us for our first Summer Circus Festival, August 15-24, 2014, including the SANCA Staff Show, “Everyday Miracles” and SANCA Goes Late Nite Variety Shows, curated and directed by David Crellin aka Armitage Shanks.

SANCA’s staff show, “Everyday Miracles”, transforms everyday actions through the beauty of circus, elevating the mundane into the marvelous. Circus artists are superheroes performing these little miracles every day, affecting other people, spreading mystery and joy.

Audiences will be treated to the beauty and athleticism of contemporary circus arts. Festival performers include: Tanya Brno, Kari Hunter, Acrobatic Conundrum, Adrienne Jack-Sands, Oliver Parkinson, Armitage Shanks, IMPulse Circus Collective , Sara Sparrow, Vivian Tam, Jill Marissa, Scotty Walsh, Lara Paxton, Mick Holsbeke and many more talented artists.

STAFF SHOW Everyday Miracles
August 15th – 17th with Acrobatic Conundrum
Friday 8pm, Sat. 8pm, Sat.y 10:30pm, Sun. 6pm

August 22st – 24th with IMPulse Circus Collective
Friday 8pm, Sat. 8pm, Sat.y 10:30pm, Sun. 6pm
WHERE: SANCA 674 South Orcas St. Seattle, WA 98108

SANCA goes Late Nite, an evening of raucous thrills with live music & special guests, including: Vivian Tam, Adra Boo, Duo Finelli, Marta Brown, Esther deMonteflores-Webner/Laura Burch, Bridget Gunning, Tanya Brno, Professor Scotty Walsh, Jenny Penny, Caela Bailey, Nash Fung, Florial, with music by Bucharest Drinking Team on August 15th and by Chaotic Noise Brigade on August 22nd.

WHEN: Friday 10:30pm, August 15th & August 22nd
WHERE: SANCA, 674 South Orcas St., Seattle, WA 98108

SANCA Summer Circus Festival is August 15th – 24th, 2014.

SPONSORS These shows are supported by grants from 4Culture and the Office of Arts & Culture | Seattle.

Beyond Intro to Aerials

If you’ve been to SANCA you’ve probably seen people climbing the rope and working on the trapeze. Looks easy when other people do it, don’t you think?

I’m going to tell you a secret and introduce you to some amazing women. The secret is that aerial work is hard. Almost everything hurts at first, and all the skills take practice and conditioning—especially if you get started as an adult without a background in gymnastics or rock climbing. Does that mean you can’t do it? Or that you shouldn’t do it? Dare you try? Of course you should! It’s fun, challenging and exciting. You can take your strength, flexibility and courage to new heights.

I want to you to meet the women of the daytime aerial class “Beyond Intro to Aerial”. These fit babes have all been in the aerial program for at least a year, and most of them have been working on the foundation skills of the Intro program for almost two. Not one of them could do a pull-up or straddle in the air when they got started.

“My brain would say pull-up. And I wouldn’t even move.” ~ Erin H.

Now Erin’s rocking pull-ups. On the first day of aerial class everyone learns the basics of how to climb. Does that mean we all climb to the top the first day? Nope. We learn the basic leg wrap to hold our bodies in the air and then we begin.

“You have to be excited about the little things. The first week I could do two climbs. The next week it was four!” ~Rachel D.

Now Rachel is doing two climbs all the way to the top of the rope as a warm-up activity. When she first started the class, Erin G. couldn’t hold her feet off the ground. At SANCAthon 2012, she climbed the rope 10 times in an hour to help raise money for our scholarship program, no sweat—and she could have kept going. Jenn says, ” I couldn’t do a straddle on the ground rolling back to touch my toes on the mat.” Now she’s doing straddles in the air.  Serenity joined the class in 2011. The biggest adjustment for her was getting used to hanging upside down. She loves the company of the other ladies and brags about all the awesome chicks from aerials. There is a lot of camaraderie in the group as everyone cheers each other along and enjoys each other’s successes.

“The turtle wins the race!” ~Lauren M

Aerials helped Lauren quit smoking and start a general lifestyle overhaul that includes running and multiple days of aerial training each week. She also got the surprise side benefit of added flexibility and is doing splits for the first time in her life.

Congratulations ladies!
Thanks for reminding us all that it’s never too soon or late to get started. There is always more to learn and you can always get stronger.

Beauty Blog: Hands

Want paws of steel that don’t crack or peel? This SANCA Beauty Blog will take you in for an extreme close-up on the digits of some of your favorite Aerialists.

Do you or someone you love adore aerials?! If so, you’ve probably noticed thick calluses and dryer skin. Want paws of steel that don’t crack or peel? This SANCA Beauty Blog will take you in for an extreme close-up on the digits of some of your favorite Aerialists.

Consider yourself among the privileged few that will get a peek at the proverbial ballerina’s feet. 

All that chalk keeps your hands dry when you work on the bars—but it also makes your hands dry in general. You don’t want them to be slippery on equipment, but you also don’t want hands like work gloves with calluses that crack or peel. What is a budding aerialist to do? Here is some advice from aerialists around SANCA.

Aerials coach and veteran aerial performer “Sally Pepper” (AKA Kari J. Hunter) prescribes, “Wash, lotion and use coconut oil. Before you train, wash your hands well and then wipe with rubbing alcohol on a clean towel. This will ensure that your hands are very clean and oil-free. Moisturize anytime your hands feel dry.”

Globe-trotting trapezist and SANCA coach alum Rachel Nehmer, the flyer of Duo Madrona fame, says, “Supple calluses are the key to long term hand health”, and uses moisturizer before bed. As the flyer in a duo she rarely touches the bar, but she has some mega-special muscles between her thumb and pointer finger. 

Ben, the base of Duo Madrona, has his own beauty regime: “After a hard day of training, hold a cold beverage in each hand.”

Tom Hanna, SANCA coach and resident one-man variety show (really, he plays guitar and accordion too—and you should see how he opens an apple!), has this advice: “Pumice your hands after the shower, it smooths the calluses without taking them off. It keeps them from tearing.”

Aerialist & flying trapeze coach Alyssa Hellrung recommends, “Never underestimate the magical power of rosin. No moisturizer for me, as the climate here in Seattle is very good for hands. But in Florida and humid climates the skin on my hands would rip often. I just deal with it.”

Thomas and Justin, who perform as Duo XY, shared with us some special flyer and base calluses they have from their hand grip. They advise to moisturize at night before bed. Thomas is sporting a sweet vacation mani/pedi, and Justin got a moisturizing paraffin wax dip while on vacation. It helped for a little while.

And finally, new aerialist Naami says…”Suck it up.” (It hurts for a while.) “When it gets so bad you can’t grip….stop.”

So there you have it:
Keep your hands clean and moisturize them.
If you have raised calluses then you should file or shave them flat.
Make sure you don’t have oil on your hands when you are training.
And you kind of have to suck it up.

Bellevue Girl Finds Success in Circus Skills

Saffi Watson brings oohs and ahs from the audience
— Image Credit: Courtesy Photo, Teatro ZinZanni
posted Sep 28, 2013 at 2:20 PM

By Gabrielle Nomura
Special to the Bellevue Reporter
For the majority of 12-year olds, extracurricular activities are all about self-improvement: mastering the art of shooting a ball through a basket, speaking a new language or mastering a dance move.
Saffi Watson, a Tillicum Middle School sixth grader and Bellevue resident, knows all about practice.
The talented contortionist and gymnast can hold her limbs in an ever-moving sculpture, like a living work of origami art. Saffi’s hands know the floor well; she’s used to resting her entire body weight on them in a variety of poses. In these handstands, her ballerina-like feet hover high above her head. With a smile on her face, she radiates warmth and poise during her performances.
Saffi has performed on a hoop suspended from the ceiling and been shot out of a cannon, just to name a few acts.
She’s also extremely practiced in the art of making audience members “ooh and ahh,” having taken this talent to the stages of Teatro ZinZanni, Moisture Festival and Cirque Dreams Illumination.
During a run of a ZinZanni family show, “In Tents” two years ago, Watson, only 10 at the time, left audience members waiting with baited breath.
As childlike music plucked like the metal heart of a jewelry box, Watson moved slowly and deliberately. Smiling serenely, she blew kisses, clutching a teddy bear.
Suddenly, her head began to fall backward. As if a magnet was connected to her pigtails and her tailbone, she arched backward, discovering the space behind her ankles. Planting her palms to the floor, the girl’s supple torso bent generously. With her entire body in an “O” shape for just a moment, Watson suddenly released her legs, which gracefully launched out behind her onto the ground, like “the worm” dance move.
Circus arts are a healthy and positive activity for all young people, even if they aren’t born with exceptional flexibility like Watson.
Unlike gymnastics or ballet, there’s less of an emphasis on competition or being the best. Here, it’s about affirmation and teaching kids a wide variety of skills. They can use these as performing artists, or simply to increase their self-esteem said Erica Rubinstein, a coach of Watson’s who teaches at Seattle’s School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA).
“Every skill, every body type has a place and is valued,” Rubinstein said.
This appealed to Saffi’s parents, a singer and pianist who are both performers themselves.
Clifford Watson just hopes his daughter grows up to be healthy and happy.
“We signed her up for gymnastics because we noticed she would jump off the sofa and do crazy things,” he said. “With a kid like that, you can either get them to stop, or you can help them harness and use that talent.”
To learn more about classes in the circus arts for all ages, go to
Gabrielle Nomura is a former staff writer with the Bellevue Reporter. She lives in Seattle.

The girl on the flying trapeze

This blog post is a post from Dawn Parsons’ personal blog. Dawn’s daughter, Lucy, had a stroke as an infant leaving her with hemiparesis, a weakness in one side of her body

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The girl on the flying trapeze

Lucy has been attending SANCA (School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts) for one year. We first went there on a field trip while she was doing her constraint therapy camp last summer. She started working with Jo every Saturday for one hour and the progress that we have seen is amazing.

Lucy does everything from tight wire, trampoline, rolling globe to trapeze.  This past week she attended a summer camp for a week, 3 hours a day. On the fourth day the kids were told they would get to take a flight on the flying trapeze.

Now, the only trapeze Lucy has been on is 5ft off the ground..this would be the real deal!!

So, they harnessed her up, and she climbed the 30ft+ ladder without a moment of hesitation (I was a little freaked out as is obvious by the video 🙂

Lucy’s biggest concern was that she would not be able to hold on very long, as her weakend left side would cause her grip to slip.  When she first started doing trapeze she could only hold her left hand grip for no more than 3 seconds or so…as you can see in this video..she has come SO far in her strength.

This little peanut amazes me everyday with her attitude and determination!

all the kiddos doing a little warm up

Lucy blog post: warming up

there she is …first on the list!
Lucy blog post: list of names

making her way to the top!
Lucy blog post: climbing the ladder
Lucy blog post: flying
The smile right before this picture was the biggest I had ever seen!
Lucy blog post: in the net
She might not be willing to do this every week but she has done it once, and that’s more than I can say for myself 🙂

Circus Camp: Stella’s Story

SANCA’s circus camps come with two options, half days or full days. It was 6 year-old Stella‘s first time at circus camp, soshe signed up just for half days of camp for the week to see how she liked it. She arrived bright and early, and Stella and her fellow campers met their coaches Zach and Molly. All morning long campers got to explore many of the fun activities at SANCA: trampoline, tight wire walking, rolling globe, juggling with other campers, even acrobatics and aerial rope. At the end of camp Stella‘s grandmother arrived at Noon to take her home. “Grandma!” exclaimed Stella. “You’re here too early! We’re still playing!”Stella was smitten with circus. She signed up for full-day camps from then on, which means she got to spend more time doing all the fun activities in the SANCA gym. Best of all, Stella got to spend more time doing her new favorite circus thing- flying trapeze! She seems to have a talent for it, and she sure has a lot of fun doing it. She did great when her family came to watch her swing, and everyone cheered when she flipped into the net at the end.

Stella‘s enthusiasm and circus success are a fun inspiration. Thanks, Stella!

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.

By Jack Broom
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:

Seattle Times: Get Your Hoop On!

Pacific NW Magazine

Hula hoop it up and get your cardio, core groove going

Hooping stabilizes the core and is good cardio. But more importantly, it’s super fun.

By Nicole Tsong
Special to The Seattle Times



Instructor Leslie Rosen, right, leads a beginning hula hoop class at the School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts.

Where to start

School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts 674 S. Orcas St., Seattle 206-652-4433

ON THE FIRST day of hula hooping class at the School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts (SANCA) in Georgetown, you get to pick out your hoop. A big, awesome, heavy hula hoop.

Then you put it down and are handed a plastic hoop the size of a Frisbee. My face fell.

Our class, the first one in a 12-week series, gathered in a circle to learn some hoop fundamentals, which apparently start with arms. Teacher Leslie Rosen had us extend one arm forward, thumb up, and hang the mini-hoop between thumb and first finger. She told us to start with a big circle and then little ones to keep the momentum going to spin it around our hand.

Easier said than done. Hoops went flying. More specifically, mine went flying while my fellow hoopers for the most part appeared to calmly twirl.

We learned to stop the hoop, reversed directions and switched hands. We figured out how to move the hoop all the way up to our shoulder by lifting our arm, then lowering it to twirl the hoop back to our hand.

Hoop chasing continued. I grew concerned that 12 weeks might not make a difference for someone as hoop-lessly talented as me.

We moved up to mid-size hoops. They were slightly easier to spin. We learned how to hand hoops off between people while keeping the hoop in motion. We walked with spinning hoops. We handed off spinning hoops. Sometimes I succeeded. Sometimes hoops went rogue.

Finally, we were allowed to pick up our original hoop.

We spun it around our hands first, then hallelujah, we set up to hoop around our waists.

Leslie had put one foot forward for balance and showed us how to move our hips to keep the hoop spinning. Thankfully, the bigger and heavier the hoop, the easier it is to keep it going. And the best part was that the only place the hoop could fall now was down.

Leslie coached us to keep our hands pressed in prayer in front of us instead of dangling like “T-Rex arms.” She pointed out when I did the “woodpecker” with my head, bobbing back and forth as I hooped, and tried to get me to keep my upper body stable.

Once we got the hooping, we worked on walking in a circle in both directions and also learned to do quick spins at the speed of the hoop, which was fun and made me dizzy.

By the end of 12 weeks, hoopers learn to spin the hoop around their knees, to get it back up to their waists, to spin around their chests, necks and above their heads. Hooping stabilizes the core and also works the shoulders when spinning a hoop on your hand. It also is good cardio if you keep going. And going. And going.

More importantly, it’s super fun. One cool element of taking a class at a school for circus arts is that all the circus arts are going on around you. We were surrounded by aerialists, jugglers and people jumping on trampolines.

I was impressed, but not distracted. Hula Hoop Mastery or Bust.

Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at Email: