BRATTLEBORO — To say twin sisters Serenity Smith Forchion and Elsie Smith once “ran away to join the circus” may be a bit hackneyed, but it’s close to the truth.
Serenity likes to tell the story of how two high school “nerds” went to the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1988, but dropped out after becoming enamored with all things circus — thanks to an upstate New York children’s camp where they worked for a summer. The camp had circus arts as an activity.
After camp Elsie took off with a traveling circus group who brought esteem-building exercises to schools across the East Coast and South. She soon would follow a boyfriend to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she would become a trampoline coach.
“I went back to UMass, but then on a whim applied for a job at Ringling Brothers, and was hired and learned on the fly to dance, ride elephants, and do aerials,” says Serenity.
The sisters’ trajectories coursed upward. By 1995 they were living in San Francisco, began doing trapeze routines together, contracted with several circuses across the land, and then worked for Cirque du Soleil.
In 2007 they founded the nonprofit New England Center for Circus Arts not far from their childhood home of Huntington, Mass., and just up the road from their father’s beef farm and sawmill operation in Guilford.
The school, located in the “Old Cotton Mill,” a converted century-old textile factory, draws budding circus performers from across the country, and the world, but also people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life who hanker for circus skills.
One can take courses or weekend workshops on anything from clowning, to walking on stilts or the tightrope, to swinging on the trapeze.
“We have children who come for birthday events, teenagers who take classes with their friends, and people in their 70s, who come for exercise,” says Serenity (the sisters are 41). She is on a coaching break and is sitting on a bench in an anteroom cluttered with the street shoes and fleece belonging to the young performers practicing in the cavernous next room.
Elsie is out there coaching two women struggling on the trapeze suspended from a beam 14 feet overhead.
“We had a daylong special event in which a grandmother from Vernon who was tired of buying material things for her grandchildren, decided to enroll three generations of the family, the kids and her own children, and herself in one of our programs,” says Serenity.
The school, employing six regular staff and two dozen auxiliary coaches, uses several rooms in this renovated mill. They have been expanding, says Serenity, picking up space as a neighboring artist or business moves on.
The center also has satellite venues, including her father’s farm, location of the flying trapeze with net.
The school’s rooms in the old brick factory are abuzz with circus athletes: stretching, practicing handstands, climbing colorful fabrics to the ceiling, and, their arms stretched outward for balance, stepping across the tightrope strung 3 feet above mats.
A few hours ago another group was taking trips across the floor on the German wheel, that giant cylindrical contraption that performers ride as human spokes. Each successful trip across the tiled floor prompted high-fives or expressions of “That’s awesome!” from Chris Delgado, a circus performer and instructor, who arrives from New York every other week to offer lessons.
The school offers performances, among them the annual “Flying Nut Show” Dec. 14-16, in which the “Nutcracker Ballet” story is told through acrobatics, and the “Circus Spectacular,” the fund-raiser
on March 2-3 at the 750-seat Latchis Theater, a downtown landmark.
“Our own professionals and guest performers from Ringling Brothers and Cirque du Soleil will be at ‘Circus Spectacular,’ ” says Serenity, who adds: “I call my friends.”
Serenity describes Brattleboro, population 12,000, as “an amazing destination” with ethnic restaurants, art galleries, bookstores, trails to hike, and rivers (the Connecticut and the West) to paddle.
And trapezes from which to swing, she might add.
New England Center
for Circus Arts 74 Cotton Mill Hill No. 300, 802-254-9780, www.necenterforcircusarts. Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Courses and workshops $30-$600; registration required.
Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at dirkpatrick@aol