Swinging into the circus

Alumna Shana Kennedy used to ride a unicycle around campus as a freshman majoring in international affairs. And after graduating in 1998, she dropped politics and swung into the world of circus arts.

Now Kennedy runs a circus performing arts school in Philadelphia, which she founded last year. She teaches trapeze and high-wire acts as well as a children’s circus class that focuses on gymnastics and strength conditioning.

“As a student at GW, my greatest struggle was in establishing my identity,” she said. “Was I an academic? A linguist? Or was I really going to be a circus person?”

By sophomore year, Kennedy took a year off to enroll in Circomedia, a drama school for circus performers in Bristol, England.

“It’s not just about animals and fire-breathing and clowns,” she said. “The first struggles I faced in circus arts were about training. You continually hit walls of frustration and have to push through them. You hit points of fear and insecurity and doubt and press onward.”

Although common perceptions of circus performance focus on animal acts, Kennedy focused more on acrobatics. She juggled and performed tight-wire and trapeze acts.

She returned to the United States a year later, but her passion for circus arts didn’t fade. After graduating from GW, she took several years off before deciding to try schooling again. She took classes in business strategy and planning at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Business classes taught her that “no matter how much you love something, it has to be a viable business model.”

Kennedy’s experience at Wharton influenced her decision to turn her love for circus arts into a business. Philadelphia School of Circus Arts is now one of only four such schools in the United States.

A 3,000-foot former bowling alley with high ceilings and picture windows makes up the school grounds. In one of the main rooms, an observation deck hovers above the bamboo flooring at eye-level with the trapeze wire. Students use the deck to watch each other perform on the high wire and learn new techniques.

The school is open to all age levels, and students from as far away as Baltimore and Princeton, N.J., travel into Philadelphia to take classes there.

Yet Kennedy admits that success was accompanied by struggle.

“There were the struggles trying to succeed as a performer, the bumpy road learning about the entertainment industry . I worked to find the balance of being an artist, a marketing business person, a comedian, an athlete – all the things you need – and still had to face the financial challenges of never knowing where the next paycheck was coming from.”

These days, Kennedy says the school is flourishing with 17 teachers and 250 students.

“The majority is just regular, average students, but there are some who are training to be professionals,” she said.

Kennedy said she still abides by the same manifesto that once inspired her to explore circus arts when at GW. Her advice to GW students: “Find what you love to do and make it work.”

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