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Alumni Newsmakers

Somersaulting into Success

Shana Kennedy, BA ’98, teaches trapeze and other tricks as owner of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. Below: Kennedy demonstrates her dexterity on a cable of fabric.

Swing, flip, dip, and don’t look down. Professional aerialist Shana Kennedy has gone head over heels for a new business that teaches the exhilarating art of circus performing.

Ms. Kennedy, BA ’98, last year opened the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, where she and 15 other instructors teach classes on trapeze, gymnastics, juggling, and high-wire acts. One of only a handful of circus performing spaces in the nation, the school draws nearly 300 students who learn to swing and spring with skill. Ms. Kennedy, who majored in French language and literature at GW, says she was drawn to Big Top performing since high school and always wanted to share the beauty and mystery of the sport.

“Circus arts, to me, was never about the costumes or the animal tricks,” she says. “It’s about human beings achieving seemingly impossible things.”

The traveling circus brought more than airborne acrobats to Ms. Kennedy’s hometown each year; it brought endless possibilities for discovery. The Natick, Mass., native got turned on to juggling as a teen. At GW, she used a unicycle to unwind after class. By the time she was a college sophomore, Ms. Kennedy enrolled in Circomedia, a circus performing school in Bristol, England. She focused on tight-wire and trapeze acts at the school and developed a penchant for performing. After a year of training, she returned to GW and finished her degree, completing a senior French thesis exploring the circus’s influence on art and literature in Paris during the turn of the 20th century.

“College, for me, was a time for figuring myself out. I enjoyed my studies at GW—I took dance, weightlifting, theater. I just wanted to explore,” says the former National Merit scholar. While the intellectual pursuit was thrilling, “I’ve always thrived off of being different. And when I would watch circus artists perform, it was like a door opening to a new world. I thought, ‘This is where I was meant to be.’”

After college, Ms. Kennedy performed in freelance gigs and traveled the world with a circus arts touring group before deciding to teach her craft. She took business courses, created a viable company model, and rigged trapeze bars in her backyard until she found a formal studio in Philadelphia. The school, a 3,000-foot former bowling alley adorned with cables of fabric, trapeze bars, floor mats, and tightrope wires, offers classes for all ages. While some students are training to be professional performers, Ms. Kennedy and her staff say they welcome novices looking for a nontraditional sport. Need a new workout? Try Chinese acrobatics. Want to get away from it all? Let your mind and body soar on the aerial hoop. Always wanted to ride a unicycle? Now is your chance, Ms. Kennedy says: The benefits abound.

“When I first started practicing, I learned I could train my body to do things I didn’t know I could do,” says Ms. Kennedy, whose specialty is the static trapeze, where she executes stunts on a still trapeze bar. “You gain strength, you learn coordination skills, and you also begin to understand how you can express yourself through performance.”

So far, the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts has been a hit. Student enrollment has nearly tripled since the studio opened in June 2008. The school has also had positive cash flow for a full year, Ms. Kennedy says, and she plans to pay off the studio’s start-up debt within the first two years of its opening. Students from as far away as Wilmington, Del., Harrisburg, Pa., and upstate New York come to the studio looking to gain the same energy and fast-paced fun that Ms. Kennedy thrives on.

“I start each day feeling driven and excited to work,” Ms. Kennedy says, “and that comes from doing what you love.”

When she isn’t teaching the technical side of trapeze, Ms. Kennedy is busy being mom to her three children, Sebastian, 6, Ayla, 5, and Isla, 2. She is married to Greg Kennedy, a world-renowned juggler.

How does she run a successful business, care for her family, and teach tightrope on the side?

“My biggest challenge, I suppose, is wanting to be in so many different places at the same time, and giving full attention to where I’m at in the moment. It’s a matter of working on it, little by little.”

And that, Ms. Kennedy says, might be the biggest balancing act of all.

—Jaime Ciavarra