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.
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org