Elsie (left) and Serenity (right). Photo: Acey Harper

Elsie (left) and Serenity (right). Photo: Acey Harper

Elsie Smith & Serenity Smith Forchion share the spotlight for our third feature in the Women & Circus series ‘Entrepreneurs of Circus’.

School: New England Centre for Circus Arts (NECCA)

Location: Brattleboro, VT

Director: Serenity Smith Forchion (Executive Director) and Elsie Smith (Artistic Director)

Status: Not for Profit

Students: Over 5000 in 2013

Women & Circus: How have you managed to succeed at running a successful circus business, and what do you think has contributed to your success?

Serenity Forchion: One thing that is definitely clear with running a business is to grow with demand. This means that when you start a new class, you already know it will have a full roster. Wait until you have a lot of people knocking on your door, saying “please, please, please teach me German Wheel”, and then start a German Wheel class. That’s the business side of it.

The other side is working with a team of people that you really like, who are also really good at what they do. We adjust job descriptions to fit skills, and adjust skills to fit job descriptions. It’s important to really invest in the people that you are going to work with. We might hire somebody to teach kids and adults, and if we realize that they’re actually not really great with kids, we either get them more training to work with kids–invest in them–or adjust the job description to work with what their talent is if they are somebody we really like and want to have around.

W&C: What have been the biggest challenges in running the school?

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Recital performance at NECCA’s main studio

SF: Time is definitely the biggest challenge. The amount of time that it takes to actually get things done is always more than you anticipate. Right now we’re restructuring our flying trapeze program. I started having conversations about that last summer, but only now are we getting to a place where we actually think we know where we are going with restructuring the program.

I have three kids, and we also have a performance company as well, so personal time is always a challenge. But it is important to recognize that things do take time. It’s like training–it doesn’t happen in two days, it doesn’t happen overnight. The same thing happens with creating a vision for a school, building a business plan for a school or training a coach.

W&C: How do you deal with the lack of time?

SF: I don’t sleep very much, that’s the short answer. I think the longer answer is something Elsie and I are still learning to do, which is to delegate. It’s important to make sure that you have a strong enough business plan that you can pay people for the work that needs to get done.  We have a ton of volunteers, but in the end it’s really important that you structure your business so that you can pay people for the work that they do. Something we started to do a while ago is that when someone wants to volunteer to help out, we still put it in the budget as a dollar figure that has been donated to us. So it shows up as something that belongs in the budget, so that we can take that into account next year and value people.

W&C: How have you juggled having a performing career while also running the school?

SF: It’s the same answer, I don’t sleep very much!  It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of dedication, it’s a lot of passion. You can’t do this stuff if you don’t really love it because it is all-consuming. It’s what makes me happy, so I do it.

W&C: What are your goals with NECCA? Where do you want to see the school go?

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Serenity teaching a blind woman trapeze in a program for disabled dancers.

SF: We just finished putting together a five-year business plan that is centered around the fact that we are looking towards building our own circus building. About a year ago we purchased land, and our plan is to raise money to build a custom circus trapezium. We’d like to have more “high-flying” circus arts. Right now we only have 16 ft ceilings in our main studio, and we have an outdoor flying trapeze that can only run part of the year. We have a huge German wheel program, but right now we don’t have the space to fully roll twice, which is a standard for competitions. So our vision is to have our own custom circus building where we can do swinging trapeze and flying trapeze, where we can really teach people to do aerial silks at height, and where we have more space for German Wheel.

Expanding our teacher training programs is another goal. That’s a big part of what we do and people come from all over the world to learn how to teach aerials. That’s very important to us as part of helping ensure industry safety standards and helping the industry grow. There is an amazing opportunity to have a little circus school in every town, just like there’s a little soccer school or little karate school. And we’d like to do whatever we can to mentor other people to do that.

W&C: Can you talk a little bit more about your teacher training programs, and the development of students who want to teach?

SF: Elsie and I have been teaching circus for years; we started in 1988. I actually was one of the founding members of the Circus Centre in San Francisco. So teaching was one of the first things that we did, and then we were also performers. We were never performers who just couldn’t figure out what else to do, we were actually passionate about teaching. When we were on Cirque du Soleil we continued to teach backstage. We also got a lot of experience with the injury prevention that Cirque du Soleil does using pilates and physical therapy.

It became very clear to us after we left Cirque du Soleil that there was very little attention to progressive technical coaching in aerials, most of it was trick-based. So we started asking questions about technique, about how specific muscles actually work and how to do progressive training.

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Elsie and Serenity demo how to spot big release moves at 2014 AYCO conference in Montreal. Photo by: Jenna Lowery

When we started our school and it started to get bigger, we realized that we should teach our own teachers in the same kind of methodology that we’d been developing. So we created a teacher-training workshop and it took off. Right now there are a series of workshops, an introductory five-day workshop, and then there are foundation, intermediate and masters level workshops that add onto it. The workshops are offered all over the world. We teach how to spot and how to do smart progressions for skills, but we also do a rigging seminar, a seminar on how people learn and a lot of posture analysis and injury prevention. It is really important to us to share this with other people and start the conversation about how to teach aerials safely.

W&C: How do you satisfy the people who are pursuing circus recreationally as well as those who are more serious or want to become professionals?

SF: Our motto has always been to teach to the heart. And by that we mean if somebody wants to be a professional, and they want us to tell them to stretch their splits for three hours a day and do twenty pull-ups in a row then we’ll teach them that way. But then if somebody just wants to enjoy hanging upside down for the very first time, we’ll teach to that as well. It shifts how we approach every single student. And we find that the question is always the same, no matter who we are working with: What do you want from this, and how does your particular body work? And how can we match your desires to your experience? I do a lot of work with people with disabilities, for example. The investigation with them is: Is this for fun or do you want to be a professional aerialist? And then how does your particular body work and how can we examine and investigate how this all might fit together?

In terms of practicality, we have coaches who we are doing constant teacher training with to share our knowledge and other high-level coaches’ knowledge with them. So we really invest in our coaches’ ability to be able to teach at all levels. It is very hard to find high-level coaches, so we train them.

W&C: What do you believe the mission of a circus school in the U.S. to be?

SF: Our mission statement is to provide a facility and a program for people of all ages and all abilities in the circus arts. That’s essentially the mission of the New England Centre for Circus Arts. The vision behind the mission is to teach to the heart.

In terms of the bigger question that you are asking about what our responsibility is to circus arts, I think that our task is to get circus arts recognized as an art form. If you apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, there will be a place to tick a box for dance, theatre, sometimes opera, music. But there’s no box for circus arts. I think circus schools in the U.S. have to have that in mind as we look at the big picture. It would be nice to be recognized as an art form, and we need to think about what we need to do to get there. I believe that in order to get there we need to have recognition that circus is a thing that needs to be trained and taught in a smart, safe, progressive, creative way, and foster it that way. It needs to be fostered as something accessible for people of all ages and all abilities as an art form. Everyone can learn to play the piano, that’s wonderful, and it is recognized as an artful thing to do. It would be nice if circus arts were recognized that way as well.

I think it’s a really exciting time in the circus industry. It’s been incredible to see over my circus career, which has spanned the last 26 years, how much has not just grown but shown up. Teaching circus arts has really changed in the last twenty-six years and it’s an exciting and beautiful place for us to be. There’s a huge future in it that we have to approach with a lot of responsibility and also a lot of glee—it’s amazing to be here and see other people getting excited about circus.

Please visit the NECCA website to find out more information about the school.

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