Around 20 girls are gathered in the gym at the Dallas International School. Two are hanging on a trapeze, one is wrapped in an aerial rope, a few are suspended from lyra — aerial hoops — and another is on a mat in the corner whirling gold hula hoops from various limbs.
When one thinks of circus performers, they often think of goofy clowns and ambidextrous jugglers. But the after-school circus program at DIS shows the physical strength, coordination, and training that truly goes into performing.
All of this is overseen by Fanny Kerwich, who founded the after-school program in 2000. An eighth-generation circus performer from France, Kerwich decided she wanted to introduce the art of circus performing to Dallas following a career touring around the world.
“I do have an emotional attachment to the school because this is where I started,” said Kerwich, who founded the Lone Star Circus six years after her start at DIS.
The beginning of practice finds all students practicing floor work, focusing on flexibility, poise, and strength through somersaults, splits, and other routines. Then the class divides into groups. Various instructors — all professional performers with different skill sets — work with the students on different specialties while Kerwich observes.
During the first semester of each school year, students have an opportunity to try all the different acts. During their second semester, students decide what they would like to focus on for the annual performance in the spring. Kerwich encourages the students to try their hand at all the different specialties.
While the class does act as a form of physical education, to Kerwich, it isn’t just another form of exercise.
“It’s a good way for expression and artistry,” she said. “[Dallas International School] is a school that gives a lot of opportunity to the arts.”
The after-school program consists of two classes each Thursday evening — the first for the younger students, and the second for the advanced.
For some DIS students, like 14-year-old Clair McFadden, these classes aren’t just an extracurricular activity.
“This is my dream,” she said. She pulls out a mat and exhibits her contortion skills, standing on one leg and bringing the other up and parallel to her body, slowly pulling it past her head to the other shoulder.
The DIS eighth-grader has been a part of the program since kindergarten.
“It really gives me a chance to be passionate about something,” McFadden said. “I really feel like I belong here and I can really show who I really am without being judged.”
For others, such as DIS seventh-grade student Camille Hernandez, the class is more recreational than vocational. The 13-year-old has been attending classes for nine years. She says the class has taught her flexibility and tricks.
While Hernandez said she doesn’t plan to make a profession of performing, “it’s something that I plan to keep doing until I graduate.”
As the practice nears conclusion, Kerwich said she is proud of the success of the program. She adds that it couldn’t have been done without the support of the school.
“Every year it’s been a success and a joyful moment,” Kerwich said. “My goal throughout the program is to provide the best quality training you can have in the U.S. The program we have here in DIS is one of the strongest in the country.”