Originally published May 19, 2010 at 4:17 PM | Page modified May 19, 2010 at 8:05 PM
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 firstname.lastname@example.org