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January 27, 2012

Ida Hoequist ’14

Last Thursday, for the third night in a row, my host sister looked up from her iPad and cheered "No school tomorrow!" For the third night in a row, my heart sank and I groaned quietly at my computer. I'd never disliked snow days before - but then, I'd never yearned for school more than I do now. This month, I'm living in Seattle with the family of a current Obie, attending the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA), and it's basically a dream come true.

Oberlin, since the founding of Tumbling Club (of which I will be co-chair starting next semester!), has had a Winter Term partnership with SANCA that involves a certain number of students living in Seattle and taking all of the circus classes that SANCA is equipped to offer. To wit, that includes tumbling, acro, handbalancing, unicycle, tightwire, trampoline, German wheel, rolling globe, juggling (balls, rings, and clubs), static and flying trapeze, aerial rope, fabrics, and Chinese pole.

If you think all of that plus daily conditioning sounds exhausting, rest assured: it is.

Will in a circus wheel with his body parallel to the floor

Will, trying desperately to move his German wheel. Rotating a huge steel frame around yourself using only the shifting of your weight as momentum is not as easy as you might think!


This is how it goes: we lucky devils who've been accepted to the program arrive at SANCA by eleven each morning, play our butts off until one o'clock, go on lunch break, and put in another two hours of play in the afternoon. During the last half hour of our hour-long lunch, one of our teachers comes into the room that's been put at our disposal and pops in a circus movie for us to watch - the purpose of which is to educate us about circus styles old and new, and the cozy side effect of which is to make us feel like little kids whose parent just put on an entertaining film. Our room is devoid of furniture, so we just sort of group up on the carpet and go "Oooooh!" in unison or "I want to learn that!" when the performers pull off impressive tricks. It's all very grade-school.

Two circus performers mid air holding each others arms

Sometimes when we're doing flying trapeze, I like to pretend that we're as awesome as the people in the videos we watch.


This five-hour cycle of class and lunch and class is the backbone of our weekdays, but often there is more happening both before and after. As part of the Winter Term program, we shadow our instructors as they teach regular SANCA classes in the morning and afternoons; my schedule, for example, is to shadow at 5 and 6 PM on Mondays, at 4 on Tuesdays, and at 4 and 5 on Wednesdays. Add the occasional meal grabbed with a friend and take into account my two-hour commute home, and suddenly the day takes a lot longer to get through. Most nights I stumble in through the back door around eleven and go straight to bed (via the shower). This week, because we have to make up the snow days we missed, I'll be out late pretty consistently.

The author juggling
I'm out late on weekends, too. This particular picture was taken by Will; we had decided to visit a free juggling festival taking part in Seattle Center that weekend, and I was having a go at some of the toys lying around.

Not that I don't want to do extra things! Wandering around in Seattle can be great fun, and it would be a terrible shame to miss the weekend events SANCA invites us to (Friday night pizza, potlucks, parties, a renowned dinner theater circus called Teatro ZinZanni, and so on). That, and shadowing classes is invariably immensely valuable. As singular as the experience of trying something for yourself is, watching people teach or do things - and yes, the classes mostly consist of small children or older adults doing things that I can't yet - is also a legit way to learn. Not only that, and not only are the teachers literally all certified BAMFs, but SANCA's teaching strategy is intensely focused on the positive. This means, for example, that criticisms are framed as suggestions for improvement, motivation is never a question of pleasing anyone but yourself, and every class ends with obligatory high fives and some variation on "You worked hard today, and I can tell you've made progress - well done." It's an empowering environment. I, for one, am perpetually excited to be a part of a teaching strategy that lets me not only help the students progress but also foster their (and my!) genuine love for circus. In short, shadowing is something I look forward to.

Depending on the teacher, it can even be an opportunity to relax. SANCA enrolls a total of about 700 students, but classes tend to be between one and ten people, so if the students behave and the teacher doesn't need my help, I get to chill out and watch happy people play on circus toys. One of my shadowing assignments, a handbalancing class taught by SANCA's co-founder, is the exception: I asked him what I could do to be helpful, and he replied, "Participate." (So that's an extra hour of training I get to take part in. I love it, my muscles don't.) Being on friendly terms with the founders is another bonus that SANCA's size and atmosphere afford, and the conversations I've had with them have invariably been fascinating, amusing, and not a little enlightening. It takes wise people to set up such a well-run, universally liked, constantly growing school.

Allison hanging from ropes upside down

Allison, a fellow Oberliner, is sometimes also a happy person playing on circus toys. I mean, who wouldn't be, in her place?


The hired circus artists we learn from, to be fair, are also some of the most fantastic and humble teachers I have met. (And five of them are Oberlin grads! We're everywhere!) Most of them are young, some are professional performers, and all of them love to play on circus equipment - a love that translates well into the kind of teaching that SANCA encourages. I myself have been loving one particular toy a little more than the others, recently: ever since we were introduced to Chinese pole on the second day of class, I have been monstrously excited to work with it. Sometimes I almost think it's a shame that we get to sample such a broad variety of skills, because it doesn't leave nearly enough time to improve any one thing to my satisfaction.

This is a video my pole teacher posted to youtube about a year ago. In the background, you can see SANCA's main training space. In the foreground, you can see how terrifically much he's having to strain to get the tricks. Have I mentioned this stuff is mad hard?


Thankfully, since this is our third and last week of classes, we get to choose two areas of specialization and work on nothing but those two skills for about an hour a day - which, mind you, still isn't much (though my forearms seem to think that an hour of Chinese pole at a time is just plenty, thanks)! I have started getting the customary "pole kisses" on my arms, though, which I find encouraging. If I'm getting injured the way the professionals get injured, it must mean I'm doing something right, no? That's what I tell myself when I look at these bruises, anyway...

My second skill of choice is unicycle, a skill that requires mercifully little muscular input. Nevertheless, I have been told by my teachers that unicycle is the single most difficult thing taught at SANCA, and if this is not the truth, it is at least very close to it. But so what? I am determined to learn.

Ah, if only there were more time! I've only just gotten to the point where I can read on the bus and look up just as my stop approaches, and I've only seen a few places in Seattle. I've only now become comfortable enough to spend my free time exploring instead of being lost or nursing myself back to health. For all the pain SANCA has put me through and all the anguish Seattle's rain, ice, snow, and transportation system have caused me, I've begun to like it here.

But soon I'll be in Oberlin, and there's something to be said for that, too.

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