Three nights a week, Alice Dustin, a 70-year-old retired French teacher, leaves the comfort of her home on Philadelphia’s Main Line and heads to the ropes inside a small building on Greene Street in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. There, she hangs upside down and swings on trapezes like a swashbuckler on a chandelier.
“It was the physical movement that just drew me to the circus arts at first,” said Dustin, who is also an amateur painter. “I’m game for anything. My forte is probably my strength, and what I lack in flexibility I make up for in enthusiasm.”
Dustin is the most senior student at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, 5900A Greene Street, which enrolls 700 students, most of them adults. For a fee that can range from $156 to $249 for 12-week sessions, the school teaches circus arts to any and all who wish to participate. The classes include trapeze, rope climbing, unicycling, tumbling, juggling and even plate-spinning.
Begun in the home of its founder, the school moved to Germantown in 2008 and has been going strong ever since.
“When we started we were not a bunch of educators. We had limited experience with that. We didn’t know what we were doing,” said Marc Miller, managing director. “It is very organic in what we have done with the program. It’s like trial and error. We have it down now to a logic and science, and we do pretty well with it.”
The school welcomes children, professionals, and various others from a theater background, but circus experience is not necessary for enrollment.
“We are a recreational school. Most of our students are just doing this for fun,” Miller said. “Although it doesn’t mean that we don’t take people in bad shape and convert them to the best shape of their lives.”
Dustin loves both the fun and physical fitness that come with circus arts.
She is currently at a level four intensity, the second highest offered for students at the school. She uses everything available to her, from the silk ropes and hanging rings to the juggling clubs and unicycles. Her classmates greet her with warm welcomes and are always inclusive of her in the workouts. The atmosphere is friendly rather than competitive.
“It feels good to be doing this at my age, and I don’t feel competitive with my classmates,” Dustin said. “I think one’s competitive with oneself. Plus, I could be most of their grandmothers.”
Dustin said she has a fear of heights – but that doesn’t stop her. “I think my husband is more worried than I am,” she said. “My kids think it’s all very cool. I’m lucky to do what I love and love what I do. I’m going to continue to do this for as long as I can.”
Dustin’s daring is what circus arts are all about, said Miller. “Alice is as much circus as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat,” he said. “And that is what is so great. In reality, the values of the circus are actually for ordinary people, it’s all about impossible things. We put barriers on ourselves, and circus will teach you how to destroy those barriers.”
Others at the school not only want to push their personal limits but also go professional.
Aaron Berman, 17, has been going to the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts since he was six years old. The Abington High School senior is currently practicing over 15 hours a week in hopes of becoming a full time professional circus artist, all while teaching young children and adults at the school.
“It just means a lot in the sense of helping people reach their goals. Similar to the people who helped me reach my goals,” Berman said. “That is pretty much why I think it is so important for me to kind of do that.”
There’s no college degree for circus professionals, so Berman hopes to audition in various circus programs throughout the country in order to attain a higher level of training. He hopes to join a circus school in Canada, or even sign a professional contract with a circus tour and travel around the world.
“I think it’s great that I get to come full circle. To be able to help kids who were in my position is really great,” Berman said. “It really helps you understand what are you doing, and that helps you become a better artist through your teachings.”