Shana Miller Kennedy at work

(WOMENSENEWS)–On Mother’s Day Shana Miller Kennedy isn’t expecting breakfast in bed.

She says her children–ages 6, 4 and 2–are too young to pull that off. "Maybe I’ll get some homemade cards, that would be sweet."

But then it’s off to her other baby: the school she founded less than a year ago. It’s one of only four schools in the country with a full-on circus arts curriculum: juggling, aerials, unicycle, tightwire and, most recently, parkour–a kind of urban acrobatics in which practitioners use the city’s infrastructure, such as walls, signs, steps and scaffolding, as their vaults and hurdles.

For Kennedy, the school is the fulfillment of a quest common to so many mothers: A full, active life for herself and her family.

But don’t call what she does–especially not the juggling part–multitasking.

"A lot of people think of multitasking as juggling but actually, it’s the opposite," Kennedy said. "Juggling requires focusing completely on just one thing, a single task that takes complete concentration."

It can almost be like meditation. It’s a discipline. There are monks who take up meditation–and juggling–for this reason.

"Our enrolled students are beginner and intermediate level," Kennedy said. "By the time someone becomes an advanced juggler, to be honest, they won’t need a class. They need to practice, by themselves."

The school does, however, provide studio time for advanced jugglers and has six juggling teachers.

Greg Kennedy, Shana’s juggler husband, comes by as a guest artist occasionally and sometimes steps in to coach regular classes if there’s a need. "His performing schedule is too irregular for me to give him a weekly class. Greg is certainly the best-known juggler who works at the school."

For All Ages, Purposes

The oldest student here is 66 years old. (Check out YouTube for "Alice Dustin"–you’ll want to turn the clock forward!). The youngest is 18 months old, in the "gymfoolery" class.

And several dozen children participate in "circus tots" for 3- to 5-year olds.

The school’s roughly 250 enrolled students cover a range of ages and reasons for being there.

Some come for fitness, some for fun and artistic expression. Others are working toward a career in theater, dance or circus. Some 17 part-time teachers carry the load, with a ratio of one teacher for every six students. Summer camp, corporate and leadership team-building and evolving partnerships with other cultural entities have followed.

Kennedy’s start in circus arts began on a family vacation when she was 11 years old and spied a rusty old unicycle at a yard sale. Her parents declined to buy it and, she now admits, she sulked the whole vacation.

In her Boston-area high school the juggling club really sparked her ambition to master circus arts, but her father offered a deal: "Go to college," he told her, a National Merit Scholar. "Get a degree, and then your mother and I will spring for intensive training in circus arts in England."

So she did. But sandwiched between her junior and sophomore years at George Washington University, she took off for a year’s intensive study at Circomedia in Bristol, England, where she chose aerials–trapeze, ropes, silks, hoops and the like–as her specialty. The B.A. in French Literature followed.

All the time, she wondered: how to fly high and build a nest? She couldn’t imagine a life of touring and wanted to settle down eventually with a family.

Kennedy needed a plan to accomplish what seemed almost undoable. In fact, that’s kind of what circus arts are about.

Forming a Foundation

At a juggling convention in Philadelphia, she met Greg, who had veered off an early career track in engineering. While still in his early 20s he had already become a world class juggler. You could say she fell for his manipulations, but only in the best sense.

They married in 2000 and set up house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where they could afford a somewhat ramshackle three-story place with a big backyard. Soon they began tearing out part of the second floor–despite the cautions of friends and family about "resale value"–so both Shana and Greg could gain the height they needed to practice aerials and juggling, and so that Shana could begin teaching students at home.

As a first-anniversary gift, Greg–who had trained as an engineering student at Drexel University–designed and built a 23-foot portable aluminum aerial rig. They installed it in their backyard. Students from as far away as Princeton, Baltimore and Harrisburg began showing up.

When the weather was favorable, Shana and her students practiced outdoors. You can imagine what summer barbecues at their house were like.

She and her students also performed off-site at festivals and big public events. The portable aerial rig was a boon, of course. Within a few years, Kennedy founded the professional performance troupe, Air Play.

Two babies came along. When the third was on the way, Kennedy decided that rather than hang upside down in her third trimester, her time would be better spent at the Wharton business school on the University of Pennsylvania campus, where she took several classes in business strategy and management.

That’s where she learned to very clearly and persuasively lay out plans that she knew in her gut would work.

The next step was finding a building for a school. For several years, she searched in Center City (downtown), the suburbs and North Philly. Finally, she found a space for lease–a 3,200 sq. ft. former bowling alley–three blocks from her home. Done!

Family-Friendly Business Style

The Philadelphia School of Circus Arts opened in June 2008, renovated with savings, a bank loan and much labor from friends and family.

An ocean of bamboo covers the floor, a picture window looks out onto neighboring gardens and 20-foot ceilings brace 18 aerial rigs.

Kennedy says her business style is probably somewhat particular to women. "If I just wanted to build it and be big, I would have a different model," she said. "What I do see are very successful relationships among the faculty and students."

Her family style, she says, is heavily dependent on babysitters. "When Greg is home, my kids are excited to have the day with Dad. But he is a professional juggler who tours for a living, so there are many days that a babysitter stands in. We are fortunate to have a great network of babysitters–many of them my circus students! Without them, none of this would be possible."

On Mother’s Day morning, Kennedy will be at her circus school, teaching an intermediate-advanced aerials class and conditioning basics.

After that she’ll head into Center City to a clown lecture demonstration presented by colleagues at Pig Iron Theatre. By 5 p.m., she’ll be back at the circus school, making sure the rest of the day’s classes–parkour, gymnastics, beginners aerials and private lessons–and perhaps a party, go well. Then she’ll lock up.

"It will be a relatively short Sunday workday for me, as I will make it home for dinner, baths and bedtime with the kids," she said.

Pamela Rogow is a Philadelphia-based producer of cultural events and green enterprise. She has been consulting with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts special projects since Shana Kennedy called last June to say, "I have a surprise for you! I found a building."

For more information:

Philadelphia School of Circus Arts