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:

A talk with aerialist Jonathan Rose, part of Moisture Festival 2013

Originally published March 17, 2013 at 5:47 AM | Page modified March 17, 2013 at 7:52 AM

  • Seattle aerialist Jonathan Rose, who’s had a thing for the circus life since he was 18, will be happily spinning and dangling from a rope at the Moisture Festival, which runs March 21-April 14, 2013.

    By Michael Upchurch
    Seattle Times arts writer

Seattle aerialist Jonathan Rose can ascend a rope so smoothly that it looks as easy as riding up an escalator. His five-minute routine takes phenomenal strength, but you’d never guess it from his calm demeanor as he turns himself over, under, sideways and down in midair.

“I do kind of like the heights,” Rose said last month, while taking a break from training at Seattle’s School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts (SANCA). “I can’t be right-side up for too long. The blood starts to leave the brain.”

Rose, 33, is one of dozens of gifted performers taking part in the Moisture Festival, Seattle’s grand circus-arts bash that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. It opens March 21 at Hale’s Palladium in Fremont and continues for three weeks at various venues.

Looking at any Moisture Festival act, you find yourself asking: How did the exotic figure onstage get into this business? Surely there has to be a story behind it?

In Rose’s case, there is.

He grew up in Seattle where, he says, he played “all the usual sports, but never got real passionate about team sports or competitive sports.”

So far, so average.

When he went off to college in Indiana, however, major restlessness set in.

“I was really bored,” he says. “Bored out of my mind.”

So he decided to drop out and take a bicycle tour of the Southwest: “I wanted to see all the national parks. I’d never seen the desert before.”

On a detour to see Mexico’s Copper Canyon, his bike was stolen, so he hitched a ride to a small town where, one day, the circus arrived.

“After the show,” he recalls, “I asked them if I could join.”

They told him to show up the next morning with his bags packed. Rose wound up spending more than a year and a half with Mexican circuses, first as a roustabout, then as a performer: “They gave me small parts in the show, clowning bits. Eventually I had a hula-hooping act.”

He was also put in charge of the elephant, Maurice, and the hippopotamus, Pepe, despite the fact that he’d had no previous experience looking after pachyderms.

“It was when I was in Mexico that I first saw a video of Cirque du Soleil,” he says. “It was one of their early shows and I was just totally blown away.”

He soon realized he had a greater interest in performing than in shoveling animal dung. Searching online, he learned that SANCA had just opened in Seattle. So he came home and signed up for aerial lessons — at age 24.

That, he admits, was a late start. It’s also unusual for anyone born outside the circus world to enter it. But nowadays, with more and more circus schools popping up, outsiders entering the fold are discovering and mastering circus disciplines later in life.

Between performing and teaching, Rose is getting by.

“At this point, it’s definitely at least a part-time job,” he says. He also works part-time as a bus driver for King County.

How do Rose’s parents like having a circus performer in the family?

They’ve gradually accustomed themselves to the idea, Rose says. “I mean, by now, over the course of my life, I’ve made all kinds of decisions that they’ve disagreed with. … When I first left college to ride a bike to Mexico and join the circus down there, that was kind of the beginning of the end for their expectations of me,” he says with a big laugh.

About a year ago, he had his own second thoughts about his career choice.

“I actually had an extended moment of doubt and thought I needed to get a ‘real job’ — so I pursued firefighting for a while,” he says. “It was a lot of fun … really satisfying work. But I missed the artistic expression, and I missed the culture of circus, the community. It’s two completely different types of people. So I came back — and I’m glad I did.”

Michael Upchurch:

Life in a Traveling Circus – Nick & Wendy’s Story

Where did Coaches Nick and Wendy disappear to and what are they doing? Here is their story in their own words…

Living on the road with the Zoppe Circus, and being part of a tented touring circus is a grand adventure! We see so many small towns, big cities, and all the land in between. We get to meet local residents from all around the United States and circus performers from all over the world. Our show takes place in our “home”, a beautiful four-pole circus tent. The show is an intimate one-ring family show with a sawdust ring. Our family consists of a duo trapeze act from California, a family teeterboard troupe from Spain, a dog act from Germany, a highwire walker, horse riders, and, of course, a clown. The Zoppes have been performing in circuses for over 170 years and 6 generations.

We live in a small motorhome. Our small home carries everything we need to live and perform comfortably while traveling across the United States. The hardest part of living in a motorhome is being able to cook home-made meals and store our food, but we are learning as we go.

We are in charge of the concession stand for this season. It is our way of earning extra money while on tour (also called “cherry pie” in circus lingo). We make and sell popcorn, cotton candy, lemonade, and bottled water. In a typical weekend, we will pop at least 50 pounds of popcorn, spin at least 450 sticks of cotton candy, and mix at least 30 gallons of lemonade!


Most of our weekends are filled with performances. On show days we usually wake up at 8:00 a.m. to start our preparations. First, we get ourselves ready: get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush our teeth and warm up our bodies for the day’s performances. Then we get the trailer ready: make the bed (it converts into our couch), wash the dishes, fill our water jug, sweep the floor. Then we get the concession stand ready: fill the lemonade containers, pop popcorn, get ice for the water, make the cotton candy, clean the counters and make it look inviting. Then we get show ready: Wendy always start with her hair and make-up. Nick makes sure the unicycle is in good working order, and the stage is set and level. Then we get dressed into our costumes for the opening numbers, and lay out our performance costumes so we can change quickly before our act. All of the performers gather in front of the tent thirty minutes before each show for the pre-show entertainment. During the pre-show, all of the performers get introduced to the audience gathered in front of the tent. We do tricks, play music, and interact with the audience before welcoming them into our home.

Once the show gets started, we spend the next two hours running back and forth between the ring and the concession stand. We have our first rush at the concession stand as the audience files into the tent and takes their seats in the bleachers. We then run into the ring for the opening group number. After that we rush back to the concession stand to restock everything before intermission. We then run around the tent to change costumes and perform our act. After that, Nick performs in a group juggling act while Wendy finishes prepping the concession stand for the intermission rush. Intermission happens, we close down our concession stand, and run back into the ring to help with the horse act and the group finale. After the show, all of the performers gather outside the tent to shake hands, give high fives, take pictures, and say goodbye to the audience. Once the audience leaves, we reset all of our props, and prepare to do it all again the next show. It’s a flurry of activity, and it always goes by so fast!

Our favorite part of being circus performers is listening to the audience react to our routines. Whether it’s cheers for a trick well done, or gasps for the close calls, it is so neat to have the audience in a circle all around us. They are so close, and we cannot hide anything. There are no fancy lights, or moving props or even a stage to put distance between us. It’s just Us in the center of the ring with the audience watching and cheering all around us. We come alive with total clarity, and feel the connection we have made with the audience…

A typical weekend will start with one show on Thursday evening. Fridays usually have one show in the evening, but sometimes we have an additional kids’ matinee or press event on Friday afternoons. Saturdays usually have three shows (at 1:00, 4:00, and 7:00). Sundays normally have either two or three shows. We start to tear down the tent immediately after the last show on Sunday. Actually, the crew starts to tear down and pack the trucks before the last show is even complete! We usually try to get the tent down and loaded onto the truck before we go to sleep Sunday night. Sometimes we leave some work to be done on Monday morning.

We will usually wake up early Monday morning, and start our drive to our next location. We travel in several small caravans. Our caravan usually consists of three vehicles: Nick drives a box truck filled with everything that goes inside the tent, and tows the living quarters for the crew. He is usually the navigator. Next comes Dennis driving the semi and flatbed trailer that carries the tent. After that is Wendy. She drives our home. We take either one or two days to jump to our next location, depending on how far we have to drive.

We arrive at the new lot on either Monday or Tuesday night. A few members of the crew measure and mark out the lot, putting a mark on the ground for every stake, tent pole, and other important landmarks for putting up the tent. We park all of the vehicles and trailers, and go to sleep.

We typically take two days to get the tent set up. WendyandNick_setting upWe have a very small crew, and everybody in the show participates in getting the tent set up and ready for the performances. It involves a lot of pounding stakes, lacing canvas, raising tent poles, and many other things to get our home ready for each town, but it is a lot of fun raising our beautiful tent in some really beautiful places.

Our life on the is a lot of hard work, but it is very rewarding. It is an amazing experience being able to tour across this country with a tented circus show. We miss all of our SANCA family and friends in Seattle, but we are having a wonderful adventure with the Zoppe Circus!

Have You said “Hello” to the women who says hello to you in the office?!

SANCA has a new administrative manager; she may be new to her job and new to you but she’s no stranger to SANCA. Our sharply dressed captain of the office team did her first handstand spotted by Chuck and Jo in 2004. She started off as a student but by 2005 she had volunteered to help Tara whip our school into shape. She took home a mountain of paper waivers to input into our first computer database system.

With circus still in her heart Jenna shifted gears personally to focus on professional development. She headed off into the world to make it a better place through non-profit management. She spent 5 years working with The Center for Early Learning, helping to find funding and support for headstart and many other programs for pre-school age children throughout the State of WA. Because she can’t resist us Jenna was back again in 2011 as a Development Volunteer working with Jeff Deveaux. She worked on both SANCAthon and Up, with a Twist, helping us to make the money that keeps the lights on and the magic happening.

Working at SANCA brings together all her loves: non-profit management, creating educational opportunities for all children and circus. When I asked her how her new job was going she said ” I’m overjoyed. The work is challenging, the people are magical and the mission is inspiring. ”

In case you didn’t already know:
SANCA is dedicated to improving the mental and physical health of children of all ages and abilities by engaging them in the joyous creativity of acrobatics and circus arts. SANCA provides quality instruction in unique physical arts in a safe, supportive, nurturing environment that provides both challenge and reward to the student.

SANCA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to serving students from all economic backgrounds by providing tuition scholarships. Your tax-deductible donation supports SANCA’s Youth Scholarship fund and ongoing programs, so children of all ages may continue building success one step at a time!

Meet the Wonderful Paul & Katie

Have you ever asked yourself, “Who are those people in the tent?! Where did they come from? How did they learn to fly and can they teach me?”

Meet Paul and Katie,
the powerhouse circus couple that run our amazing program for FLYING TRAPEZE!!!!!

Paul grew up in Davenport, Iowa. He has an athletic background but was never exposed to circus arts until he was in his early 30’s. He tried flying trapeze at Club Med in 1998 and was unexpectedly hooked. He went on to train as a catcher at the Club Med in the Dominican Republic. 

Katie was born in San Francisco and raised in L.A. As a child she was a participant in the circus program at a Club Med. Even though she wasn’t especially athletic her coach made her feel like a superhero. She never forgot how good that made her feel.
People will forget what you said
People will forget what you did
But people will never forget how you made them feel.

~Maya Angelo

Paul and Katie met in 2007 at the Club Med Sandpiper Resort (about 45 min North of West Palm Beach). Katie started in child care then transferred to the circus program. Paul was the person that did most of Katie‘s early training. Romance blossomed in 2008 and they have been traveling the world flying together ever since. They have flown over 30 rigs worldwide, including a year-long stint on the Caribbean Islands of Turks and Caicos. Seattle is the last stop in this great journey—Paul and Katie have a signed a lease and they are here to stay.
Here is their master plan for the SANCA Flying Trapeze Program:
~ Make the fly tent warm and welcoming
~ Provide classes that make people excited and successful
~ Inspire students to continue

“I have an easy job. I share something I love and I want to spread that around. Every person walks away doing something they didn’t know they could do. It’s magical.” –Paul

If you are reading this and you’ve never done flying trapeze…why not? Every Friday from 5:30-7:30 the SANCA School of Flight has Pay-Per-Flight Fridays, a chance to get a taste of the flying trapeze without any commitment.

Arne Bystrom: The Whole Enchilada

If you can do it at SANCA, Arne has done it. He started as a student back in 2006. His father, Carl Bystrom, had already taught him to juggle three balls and after being tipped-off about SANCA by Tara Jensen, Carl convinced Arne to try his first class: Wednesday night Circus Arts with Chuck and Jo. Arne started off being an acrobatic flyer with his father as the base.

Having never really found his place in team sports, Arne was excited about the physical outlet in Circus. It was fun enough to keep practicing; so he kept on doing it. He practiced handstands in the backyard and worked on his skills, and before you knew it he started to get better and circus started to get really fun. Nickolai Pirak joined the SANCA team in 2006 and became Arne’s first juggling teacher. Nickolai says he remembers encouraging Arne to start juggling 5 balls; now Arne is doing 7 balls with pirouettes.

SANCA needed summer coaches and Arne was recruited. It was a slippery slope from there. After that summer he started coaching regular classes.
He teamed up for hand to hand with Zora and joined the Youth Company. The next summer he and Zora toured with Circus Smirkus. That’s when he knew that circus was what he really wanted to do. Arne decided instead of attending a traditional college he would go to circus school. On a college scouting trip he went to Turbo Fest at Quebec City Circus School, hung out with Nickolai in Germany and got to crash in the Circus Dorm at Rosny in France.

In the end it was the Quebec City Circus School that called to him with its small, warm and supportive environment. So after three years in Quebec, Arne has graduated and is the flyer in an acro/juggling duet. He stands in a two high and juggles (7) balls with a partner by dropping them down from above. All ’cause it was fun enough to want to practice.

He is back in town for now and dreaming of working for Teatro Zinzanni.Friday November 30th was the very last day that he will be sporting his mustache that he grew out for “Movember” : changing the face of men’s health by raising awareness of testicular and prostate cancer with a month of facial hair growth.

VIdeo of Arne:

Arne and Jérémy from Arne Bystrom on Vimeo.


Arne and Jérémy from Arne Bystrom on Vimeo.

Learn trapeze, trampoline and more at circus academy

Originally published May 19, 2010 at 4:17 PM | Page modified May 19, 2010 at 8:05 PM

Seattle‘s School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts, SANCA, offers classes in aerial, tumbling, hoop, juggling, trampoline and more. The first Friday of every month is Casual Flyday, where each swing on the flying trapeze is only $5. This weekend, the school is producing a spring showcase for the public.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Demonstration show

SASS: SANCA’s Annual Spring Showcase

2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts, 674 S. Orcas St., Seattle; $19 for adults, $12 for ages 12 and younger (206-652.4433 or

If You Go

Circus arts school

Where: 674 S. Orcas St., Seattle


Enroll by June 22 for the next 12-week session of classes, starting June 27. Five-day summer camps starting June 28 for ages 6 and up. Half-day camp $190; full-day camp $360

Try it out

“Casual Flyday” is the first Friday of each month (next event: June 4). From 6 to 7:30 p.m., try the trapeze for $5 per swing. Ages 13 and older, on a first-come, first-served basis.


$35 annual registration fee, family cap of $100; classes run from $138 to $312, from 45 minutes to 115 minutes.

More info on SANCA

For a directory of classes and programs, see

More on Terry Crane


Hidden in Georgetown’s gritty factory terrain is a big top, of sorts.

A warehouse contains a world of colorful tutus, leotards and tights. Multiple trapezes hang from the ceiling, along with ropes, hoops and fabric. Mats, trampolines and tightropes hug the floor. Unicycles and balls line the walls. And as juggling clubs pass through the air, legs and arms swing by.

This is a place where anyone, of any age, can become a star. A circus star. “We’ll take everyone,” said Jo Montgomery, executive director of Seattle‘s School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA), one of the few circus schools of its size in the country. “There is never a kid turned away.”

To give the public a glimpse of the action, the school is presenting a special showcase this weekend, called “SASS” (for “SANCA’s Annual Spring Showcase”).

SANCA’s offerings include aerial training, tumbling, jumping and spinning with hoops, juggling, trampoline skills, a circus band, and clown classes for all ages. For the little ones, there’s even a room with miniature versions of everything, such as a tightrope only one foot off the ground and a tiny trapeze, too. There are “Baby & Me” classes so tots can get used to being in a group, as well as summer camp for teens. And, the first Friday of every month from 6-7:30 p.m. is Casual Flyday, when anybody can try out the flying trapeze for $5 a swing.

Mesmerized by tricks

Montgomery, a pediatric nurse at Seattle Children’s hospital, started the school with Chuck Johnson six years ago. She’d taken a gymnastics class taught by Johnson for fun, and was mesmerized by the circus tricks her classmates were doing. The two started with five students and now head up a total of 706, from the ages of 3 to 67, including underprivileged and special needs students. As a nonprofit, the school gave out $45,000 in scholarships last year.

“Together, we figure out what they can do,” said Montgomery, who works with the students on their strengths.

There’s a staff of 27 teachers, who also take classes in their free time. They participate in the school’s performance troupes, made up of elementary ages to professional levels.

“I love the moment where someone comes in and says they can’t do something,” said Johnson, SANCA program director, who helped found Portland’s Cascade Youth Circus. “So I break it down to small pieces … and a huge switch turns on. They do something that they thought they couldn’t and now there are less things they cannot do.”

That’s how the trapeze was broken down for Gwen Gutow, 39, a stay-at-home mom who lives near Seattle‘s Madison Valley when she’s not in circus school. At 25 feet above ground, the trapeze was intimidating at first.

Wearing a pink T-shirt and black yoga pants, she climbed, rung by rung, up two wobbly silver hardware-store ladders tied together. Then she rose onto a skinny platform, holding on tightly, as she slapped on chalk so her sweaty palms could grip the bar.

The bar was surprisingly comforting, heavy and stable. With ten toes over the platform, it was a long way down to the string net, but when “Ready” was announced, she had to let go and leap into the air.

She recalls being told: “Turn off your brain … Hang there first and swing. Then hang by your legs to dismount and do flips.”

“These directions work. It’s amazing. You’ll feel a lot of adrenaline. … Start off small and week to week, it’s amazing seeing how much strength you’ll gain.”

Her husband, Brian Crawford, a 40-year-old software architect at Microsoft, and their two children have taken SANCA classes for years, first together in the “family circus” all-ages class, and now separately after the kids “dumped” their parents for their own classes. Corinne, 8, takes the circus class, where she gets to dabble in everything, while Cameron, 11, specializes in trampoline. His favorite: tuck jumps.

On the trampoline, Cameron jumps high, smiling ear to ear. Recently, he was brave enough to try trapeze as well. The sensation is like “flying,” he says.

“The routines help me with memory,” said Cameron. “They help me remember what comes after another, which helps me with math at school. I have to do math timings, sheets with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. … It also helps me to relax.”

The parents first met in college, at Tacoma’s Pacific Lutheran University. He convinced her to hang out with him while juggling outside, and she missed classes to be with him. SANCA became a way to share with their children that flair for the fun side of life.

“It’s exciting to work side by side with the kids,” said Gutow. “I like them seeing that adults have to try, too.”

At SANCA, the Crawfords also practice side by side with professionals, sometimes from Teatro ZinZanni.

“We’re in the same space, they work out their act,” said Gutow. “It’s inspiring to see.”

A circus pro

One of these professionals is Seattle-based Terry Crane, who has performed from Helsinki to Beijing. He specializes in vertical rope acrobatics; he loves climbing to the top, winding his body around the rope, then spiraling down in a beautiful, fluid motion.

It all started with climbing trees as a kid, basically doing things that “scared his mom.” He attended Oberlin College and studied improvisational dance, but when he got into the prestigious National Circus School of Montreal, across the street from the famed Cirque du Soleil, SANCA provided him the support to survive the often cutthroat nature of circus.

“The world of circus is really competitive,” said Crane. “It’s about money, it’s about being the best, about being in festivals and winning the prize.”

In the face of that cutthroat environment, he said, “I felt defeated, but Jo and Chuck told me to hang in there and I saw the joy it would give kids.”

Crane started off teaching summer camp at SANCA. And from June 17 to 20, he kicks off his own show at SANCA with other acrobats from Montreal, France and Italy.

SANCA “is my home base,” said Crane. “It’s the place we come together and become family. I enjoy that exchange and I love seeing the kids slack-jawed.”

Craving the spotlight

Anna Partridge was one of those wide-eyed kids.

She started taking classes when the school first opened six years ago, when Montgomery, in her role as pediatric nurse, suggested it as a way to keep active.

“I’m always here — Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, five days a week,” said Partridge, 16. “My best friends are definitely from here.”

Once shy, Partridge now craves the spotlight. She loves audience members coming up to her afterward and saying how happy her act made them feel. Her teachers say she has a bright future in circus performing, and is well balanced across all the disciplines, though juggling is her favorite.

“I love to make the audience happy,” said the Mercer Island High School sophomore. “Everyone here wants you to succeed. … As long as you have fun, it doesn’t matter. You meet new people, learn new things, and then go home and show your new skills off.”

Marian Liu: 206-464-3825 or

Grab a front rug seat at Moisture Festival


Published 10:00 pm, Thursday, March 12, 2009

  • Sally Pepper is one of several aerialists performing at this year’s Moisture Festival. Most of the performances are family-friendly, but there is a series of late-night burlesque shows for the 21-and-older crowd. The festival’s producer said there is a live band at each performance. Photo: Michelle Bates
    Sally Pepper is one of several aerialists performing at this year’s Moisture Festival. Most of the performances are family-friendly, but there is a series of late-night burlesque shows for the 21-and-older crowd. The festival’s producer said there is a live band at each performance. Photo: Michelle Bates

It’s these dark days at the end of winter that have people crying out for something fun to do, and the sixth annual Moisture Festival delivers.

Combining traditional European vaudeville and variety acts such as aerial artists, jugglers, dancers, comedians and can-can girls, the Moisture Festival is a monthlong celebration of physical arts taking place at three different venues: ACT Theatre (700 Union St.), Hale’s Palladium (4301 Leary Way N.W.) and the SIFF Cinema (McCaw Hall, Seattle Center).

Most shows are family-friendly, but the festival does have a series of late-night burlesque shows for ages 21 and older. The family-friendly shows feature a variety of performers, such as bubble magicians, jugglers, comedians, musicians and others not so easily categorized.

“It’s a return of live, variety entertainment that builds on old traditions but is updated for current times,” festival producer Tim Furst said. “There is a mix of 10 different acts and a live band at every show and each show is different, so people can keep coming back and they’ll see something new and different every time. This is their only chance to see some of the world’s best performers in one place.”

Furst is no stranger to vaudeville, having been one of the original members of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. He is retired from full-time performing with the group, but occasionally fills in and will perform as Fyodor Karamazov at the Moisture Festival. Fellow former Karamazov performer Sam Williams, known as Smerdyakov Karamazov, also will perform and emcee at the festival.

When asked how to explain the Moisture Festival concept to a first-timer, Furst says it’s similar to Teatro Zinzanni — minus the dinner theater and high prices. Moisture Festival tickets range from $7.50 for children to $25 for adults, making it an affordable indulgence for a family.

Children and their parents can sit up front on a rug instead of in chairs, and some acts encourage audience participation.

“It’s great for kids just to have the experience of seeing live performance, and to experience a performance surrounded by hundreds of other people experiencing the same thing,” Furst said. “It’s sort of the antidote to television.”

The March 21 matinee is a collaboration with the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts, which is providing all of the performers for that show.

Terri Sullivan, a former circus arts performer and now a part-time instructor at SANCA, says the school has 600 students of all ages, from age 2 to 60-something.

“We wouldn’t turn away anyone who was older, we’d just make sure they didn’t get hurt,” Sullivan said. “But the bulk of our students are in the 7 to 10 age range.”

The idea behind the school is to provide a noncompetitive atmosphere in which people can try new things — and the school doesn’t let finances get in the way. Last year, SANCA provided $35,000 in scholarships to students.

“It’s great fun, first of all, and anything that’s physical and fun builds self esteem and just joy,” she said. “Some kids are great at competition, but others are not and they won’t really blossom.”

Sullivan says circus arts are perfect for all ages and interests because there’s such a wide range of skills. You can do acrobatics, juggle or be a clown, or walk a tightrope or a rolling globe.

The March 21 performance will feature instructors and students from SANCA, including its Youth Performance Company (ages 8 to 18) and the Amazing Circus Wonders (ages 5 to 8).

“They are super, super cute and fun,” Sullivan said of the littlest ones.

“The kids who are at their shows go, ‘They’re the same age as me. I could do that!’ So that’s very inspiring for them, seeing someone who’s just like them.”

Circus school: Getting fit while having a ball

By Vanessa Renée Casavant, Seattle Times staff reporter

Using nothing but their hands, balance and trust, the two remain in unison for more than half a minute until Montgomery says she’s ready to come down.

The exercise demonstrates more than just focus and agility for their students at The School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts in Seattle. It shows what a little bit of trust, some hard work and a lot of fun can accomplish.

Montgomery, a former gymnast and pediatric nurse at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle, and Johnson, a professional gymnast and founder of the Cascade Youth Circus in Portland, opened the school in January 2004. Their goal is to get kids more physically active in a fun atmosphere that instills confidence.

With a trapeze, unicycle, two huge trampolines and a tightrope, it’s hard not to have a sense of childlike enthusiasm here. Kids are allowed to be kids in this space, Montgomery said.

“We don’t say wrong, and we don’t say don’t,” Johnson said. “Students don’t leave feeling punished, they leave feeling refreshed.”

Shiloh Ratcliffe, physical-education specialist for Seattle Country Day School, took her seventh- and eighth-grade classes to the circus school twice a week last year as part of a program to introduce students to nontraditional forms of exercise. She said 90 percent of the kids voted the circus school their favorite exercise.

The benefits of juggling

There are five types of classes offered at the circus school — juggling, acrobatics, trampoline, aerial (trapeze and hoop) and a combination class. Johnson and Montgomery rotate students among the different activities, to enhance their strength, flexibility and trust in others.

Ratcliffe said the classes helped her students get over their fear of trying something new. “Those who were more reserved definitely felt more confident at the end,” she said.

The teachers break circus stunts down into small pieces so students don’t feel overwhelmed, Johnson said. For example, a forward roll takes six steps.

“That moment they accomplish something, it’s a universal smile,” Johnson said. “It’s a privilege to watch that happen.”

Ingrid Hurlen, office manager at Billings Middle School in Seattle, said the circus training had a positive impact on 20 Billings students who attended the classes.

“It really put them on an even playing ground” and helped them learn how to work together, she said. “I think it brought a lot more focus to their academics as well.”

Juggling is one of few vigorous activities proven to enhance analytical skills, Johnson said. There is a rhythm that builds while juggling, and as students progress in their skills they can play around with it by adding more items to juggle or using different ones.

One student, whom Montgomery described as rather small and shy, came into his own through juggling. She said he gets lost in the activity for hours and has a new confidence from the muscle tone he’s gained.

Building excitement

Obesity rates among children and adults have been on the rise for the past 10 to 15 years, and getting kids excited about being active is essential to reverse the trend, said Dr. Lenna Liu, a circus-school board member and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

Without engaging physical activities, she said, children can spend too much time in front of the television and computer.

“When most people think about becoming active, they go straight to running and competitive sports,” Liu said. “What Jo’s vision was, is that a person of any shape or size should go to the school,” and that they don’t need to be physically fit right away.

It’s very important, she said, to get kids excited about being active at a young age because motivation declines as they get older. A survey conducted by the Washington State Department of Health in 2004 shows that as children get older, their amount of physical activity decreases. Over a seven-day period, 5.5 percent of sixth-graders reported having no physical activity, while 19 percent of 12th-graders did. If healthier lifestyle habits are instilled at a young age, there is a good chance children will carry it on with them as they grow up, Liu said.

Combating obesity

The circus school began with an “aha” moment. Montgomery was trying to come up with a way to address the growing problem of childhood obesity she saw at the Odessa Brown clinic. One day, as she was teaching an adult gymnastics class, the idea for a circus-arts school came to her. She wanted a place kids could go to become invigorated about physical activities, and not feel pressured.

She approached Johnson, who has taught gymnastics for 15 years. He’d been noticing a lot of negative coaching in competitive sports and liked Montgomery’s idea. He saw a need for replacing competition with creativity and putting the fun back into being active.

Once the idea for the school was formed, almost everything fell into place. “It almost had a mind of its own,” Johnson said. They didn’t do any advertising, and by the end of the year they had almost 200 students and needed a larger space.

The school is now located on South Orcas Street in Georgetown. From the outside, it looks like a huge storage facility with a loading dock. Inside however, the reds, yellows, blues and greens of the equipment and mats pop out against the bleak walls of the space.

At any given time, there can be a number of activities going on, whether it’s an instructor practicing juggling with bowling pins or a student taking one of the large colorful rolling globes for a ride.

While children were the primary focus when Montgomery and Johnson opened the school, adults are welcome, too.

Liu, who takes some of the adult classes at the circus school, said she’s addicted to them. “It gives a childlike enthusiasm,” she said. “The reason I can’t get enough of it is that I just turned 40, and I haven’t been able to do somersaults since I was 7.”

Nearly all of the classes are divided by age group accommodating anyone 6 and older. Johnson said there are age modifications for every activity. For children younger than 6, the school offers a movement class.

“We give out about as much as we get in,” Johnson said. The school was established as a nonprofit so they could have better access to public schools and offer scholarships to anyone who needs help.

Johnson and Montgomery said they knew going in that their work at the school would be a “salary optional” endeavor. Montgomery still makes a living as a nurse and Johnson said he’s living mostly off the profit from selling his school in Portland.

Circus-school classes are priced according to length, ranging from $70 for eight 45-minute classes to $168 for eight 120-minute classes. The goal is to provide scholarships for at least 30 percent of the students, Montgomery said, because she knows that if you can provide access to physical activities, half the battle against childhood obesity is won.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company