The Covid Chronicles: Reopening the Circus, Part Four


Note: This is the final installment of a four-part series highlighting the gradual reopening of DMV businesses. Part one profiles Emilia’s Acrobatics and Gymnastics, part two catches up with Pole Pressure DC, and part three visits Monarca in Flight.

From the collective shutdown to the current state of affairs, representatives of four companies specializing in recreational, artistic and competitive circus skills talked to The District Ringer about how the global pandemic has reframed their industry.

Before 2020, D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood attracted more than 2.2 million visitors in a six-month period. Fans of the Washington Nationals baseball team flocked there in 2019, crowding the streets and clamoring for pricey parking spaces.

As fans made their way to and from the stadium, many were probably surprised to discover another D.C. landmark — the local outpost of the Trapeze School of New York (TSNY).

The school’s blue-and-white building, with an indoor and outdoor flying trapeze rig, frequently caught the attention of passersby, and signaled that circus arts deserve a prominent home in Washington.

Due to a planned redevelopment at the end of summer 2019, the school set up shop a few blocks east of its former home. While relocating was at times stressful and unpredictable, the biggest challenge came in mid-March as Covid forced the the business to shut down completely.

“I certainly have moments where I’ve been thankful for my lines-puller training and my meditation practice — for that ability to take a breath and respond rather than react.”

TSNY-DC general manager Mandy Keithan said that when facing the incredible impacts of a global pandemic, her experience practicing and coaching flying trapeze has truly paid off.

“I certainly have moments where I’ve been thankful for my lines-puller training and my meditation practice — for that ability to take a breath and respond rather than react — because there is a lot of fear and urgency around many of the decisions that we make,” she said.

While the early stages of the pandemic were spent applying for federal paycheck assistance, keeping an eye on case numbers, researching best practices, and helping staff with unemployment claims, the school was able to resume classes in late June.

One key to their successful return was (initially) limiting enrollment to students who had taken classes at TSNY previously.

With so many new safety protocols in place — from health questionnaires to mask wearing to sanitizing to physical distancing — the management team felt most comfortable working with a familiar student base.

Before accepting new students, Keithan said, “We wanted to make sure that we were ready to give them the same level of hospitality, warmth and security — that sense of security that comes from building a trusting relationship with someone you’ve just met, when they’re about to help you jump off a platform 23 feet in the air.”

“When that’s the community expectation, and everybody’s doing it, it feels like a little microcosm of what we wish we were all experiencing.”

Keithan said that while the D.C. government has made many good choices regarding the public health emergency so far, there is room for improvement.

“A big part of it would be clarity from the government about the stages that we’re in, how their rulings are meant to be applied/interpreted to different facilities, and what their path is moving forward,” she said.

Fortunately, the school’s classes in flying trapeze, aerial and trampoline have run smoothly thus far.

“It has felt surprisingly positive and easy to set and hold a really high mask and distancing expectation,” Keithan said. “When that’s the community expectation, and everybody’s doing it, it feels like a little microcosm of what we wish we were all experiencing” in the world at large, she added.

Like other circus businesses in the area, Keithan said that TSNY-DC has occasionally had to educate the public about myth vs. reality.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there, some it being spread very widely,” she said.

During the summer, she noticed an unsubstantiated rumor circulating online that the District of Columbia was shutting down all kids’ camps. At the time, TSNY-DC was operating a children’s program in strict accordance with D.C. health and safety regulations.

Keithan said a strong team of staff incorporating a variety of perspectives is crucial to keeping everyone safe and supported.

“We feel very safe and confident in increasing what we do and still making sure we’re managing the flow of people and the level of protection,” she said, adding that it’s important to empower staff to firmly apply the established protocols.

“You can have the very best, most thought-out policies, and still have to — in every situation — make difficult judgment calls,” she said.

Part of TSNY-DC’s reopening strategy was to temporarily scrap drop-in classes in favor of workshops that keep student and staff cohorts consistent for weeks at a time.

They have since resumed a limited number of drop-in classes, and have gradually expanded their roster as the community acclimates to the new guidelines.

In 2021, the school will transition to a tiered monthly membership model, adding more drop-in classes that can be combined with workshops to suit students’ individual learning goals.

Keithan, who loves teaching and performing partner acrobatics as well as flying trapeze, said she hopes that 2021 brings improved circumstances for circus arts that rely heavily on physical touch and spotting.

“I hope that we’ll be able to keep the counts down and get to the point where things like touching and acrobatics can happen again,” she said. “Those are some really concrete things that we miss that we’d like to bring back.”

Next Friday (11/20), find out what trapeze fundamentals and new tricks TSNY-DC staff are working on during the TSNY Staff Flying Trapeze Demo from 7-7:45 p.m.

This event is free to view on Facebook live, and gives new and experienced students alike great insight into the learning process from those who’ve ‘been there.’

To view TSNY-DC’s upcoming classes and workshops, visit their website or Facebook page.