Children Come In All Ages: Circus Over 60

Bill Spurrell

Photo Credit: Lori Ryerson

Peter Pan had it right – Never grow up. He ran away to Neverland but the people I know did the second best thing, running away with the circus. The chaos of the circus, hustle bustle of the people, the cotton candy and the suspension of what should be possible, entrances audiences. The delight and fear is something that brings alive the imagination and unsurfaces dreams that perhaps this is something you could take part in.

Traditionally, circus was an art passed on from generation to generation. Like royalty, you had to be born into it. Because of this and the physical demanding nature of circus, it has been an art for children and not for adults but times are changing and it is a hobby many adults have picked up. Within Toronto alone, I was able to find three circus people who are 60 and over. If you think running away with the circus is only for youths, this group will change your minds.

Marsha Kennington: Toronto Circus Matriarch

Marsha Kennington

Photo Credit: Diane Mcgrath

The Toronto circus community owes a tip of the hat to Marsha Kennington for falling in love with Toronto and settling here. Kennington’s background is routed in diving and gymnastics. As the New Mexico state gymnastic champion, Kennington lost interest at 17 when she realized she was too old for the Olympics. After drifting through California for a few years, she ended up meeting a fire eater who would change her life. He introduced her to circus.

Since then, Kennington has performed spanish web, swinging trapeze, static trapeze, loop walk, flying trapeze, german wheel, comedy acrobatics and was even a fat clown when she was pregnant. Learning all these apparatuses was riddled with challenges as the family tradition caused significant resistance for an outsider. Today, there are numerous reputable places to train such as ENC (The National Circus School in Montreal)  and NECCA (New England Center for Circus Arts) but these were not available when Kennington started in 1977.

The majority of what Kennington learned as a professional aerialist was self-taught. Family performers that Kennington worked with, had learned their acts at a young age and were protective of trade secrets. Kennington faced these challenges by making her first trapeze bar by dreaming at night and processing logistics. Despite these road blocks, Kennington’s traveling circus career lasted eleven many years until she came to Toronto where she opened the city’s first circus school.

Inadvertently, Kennington has created a circus family. Her sister, who studied physics, went on the road with a perch, pole and cradle act under the name Sugar and Spice. And her daughter is an aerial artist with Cirque du Soleil.

Now, over 60, Kennington is focused on her passion project, Harbourfront Circus camp that she has been running for 25 years. Kennington still trains but is mindful of old injuries. To offset her career that has challenged gravity, she spends a significant amount of time swimming. Circus has given her a sense of fulfillment and power from doing her act. When she performed her acts, it allowed her to feel proud and to contribute to the world. With her change in focus, she is continually reaching those goals by training little ones in an art form that gave, and continues to give, her so much.

Kay A N Thomas: Mistress of the Air 

Photo Credit: Alain Pelchat / 1961 Photography

Photo Credit: Alain Pelchat / 1961 Photography

She started circus in 1995 at the age of 42 but her first memory of wanting to do circus was at the age of 12. Up late one night, a Ringling Brothers’ special featuring a spanish web performer was on TV. Thomas spent the next 30 years fantasizing of the circus. In the last 20 years, she has performed duo trapeze, static trapeze, straps, chains, hoop, rope, silks and, to this day still her favourite apparatus, spanish web.

Before circus, Thomas was always active but never to the extent that she is now. Retired, she is able to train 5 to 6 days a week, usually for 4 hours if not more. This seems extreme for someone over 60 but Thomas’ understanding of her body, it’s strengths and limitations, is phenomenal. Usually, you can see her inverting on a blue rope, doing flexibility feats that people of all ages wish they could do.

What keeps Thomas coming back to her apparatus over and over is not just the challenge but also the community. When she began training, she was at least ten years older than everyone in her class but was always accepted. If you are new and enter a training space Thomas is in, she will be the first to introduce herself and make you feel welcome. In Toronto, and to an extent internationally, she seems to know everyone and is always willing to share.

Thomas has her own way of doing things within circus. After years of working in finance, she has exceptional analytical skills that she applies to her apparatuses. These analytical skills are paired with patience because she knows that right now can’t always be the goal.

Bill Spurrell: High-flying, Dare Devil 

Like Thomas, he started late with an impromptu flying trapeze clinic at Club Med. As the Trapeze School of New York says, he forgot his fear and had to worry about the addiction. Spurrell was 55.

Bill Spurrell

Photo Credit: Lori Ryerson

He may have started late but now at 60 he can throw double back tucks, full twisting layout somersaults and full twisting doubles on flying trapeze. This wouldn’t have been possible had he not been a high-level gymnast and diver in his youth and then a national level trampolinist. He is extremely active, working out at a gym 3 times a week and doing flying trapeze twice a week. Plus, he coaches trampoline and flying trapeze.

Even though he seems intense, Spurrell is very careful with his body. He has had surgery on both of his shoulders and spends much longer warming up than his younger counterparts. If you are looking for someone with an eye for technique, Spurrell has it in spades. Not only is it great to watch him execute high-flying tricks but he can tell you the physics and mechanics of each movement. A nice bonus because for his other life as an engineer.

Spurrell is careful with what he does outside of circus – watches his diet, keeps his body in shape for trapeze – because flying trapeze is a source of joy for him. He wants to continue to share his high-flying wisdom with as many people as he can. Plus, he still has a list of tricks he is working towards and is always improving.

In chatting with all of these artists, the common motif was that circus gives them joy. None of them felt that they were ‘special’ and all of them recognized that circus helped make them who they are.

Age does provide limitations, I can feel this at the age of 34, but acknowledging limitations and working with them can allow you to continue to do circus. Children come in all shapes and sizes and even ages. It is never too late to see what joy circus can bring.

Looking for a local training facility near you? Ask us at The North American Circus Competition.

Mary-Margaret Circus

hckygrlphoto by Ramo M

Mary-Margaret Scrimger – A writer by trade, Mary-Margaret has worked in a variety of sectors such as finance, technology and publishing. In addition, she is a high-level amateur circus performer who has trained in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. Recently graduated from a public relations program, Mary-Margaret is melding her education with her creativity and financial knowledge.

© 2015 Mary-Margaret Scrimger

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