SF Youth Circus, a Gold Medal, and Beyond: Maya Kesselman's Circus Possible Story


For over 20 years, Circus Center's Youth Program has offered young people the unique chance to train circus arts at a recreational or pre-professional level.

Today our Youth Program serves over 400 youth, giving youth ages 8-18 over 1000 hours in top-quality circus instruction a year. Circus Center's Youth Program includes Summer Circus Day Camp, new recreational classes Circus Playground and Youth Parkour, and pre-professional training in Rising Stars and San Francisco Youth Circus. These programs have sent young people on to prestigious circus schools and performing troupes around the world. Maya Kesselman was one such young student.

Maya started training at Circus Center when she was 10 years old, and performed with the San Francisco Youth Circus for the next eight years. She then went on to study hoop diving for three years at L'Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque in Brussels, Belgium. After graduation, she toured Europe for three years as part of a hoop diving trio, Trio Anneaux, with Ian Vasquez of Spain and Michael Hottier of France. In 2013, they performed their hoop diving act at the 34th Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris, the internationally prestigious circus arts festival. There they won a coveted gold medal and audience choice award.

Maya has returned to Circus Center throughout the years, as an instructor and Artist-in-Residence with Trio Anneaux and acrobatic troupe, Back Pocket. Where has the circus led her now? She updated us recently:


"Circus Center is very special to me. It provided me with an amazing community of teachers and friends who led me on my path to becoming a professional circus artist.

This year, I'm in Montreal working on the new Cirque du Soleil show, Luzia - doing hoop diving and pole and a million other things. I've been reunited with my friends from Youth Circus and Back Pocket: Marta Henderson, Devin Henderson, and Dom Cruz. We're all in the show together!

Circus gave me the tools to build a lifestyle where I get to discover other cultures, do what I love, and learn more about myself and the world than I thought possible."


Circus Center's youth programs give young people opportunities to discover their own strength, learn a unique art form and artistic self-expression, and build healthy habits that can last a lifetime.

Your support means more young people can have the opportunity to succeed like Maya. With your donations, we can offer more financial aid and program support, giving more youth access to top-quality circus instruction and free shows in their community. Help us bring the joy of circus to all so any talented young person can access all the joy circus has to offer.

Last year, we raised $10,000 for our youth programs - help us match and beat that benchmark with your donation today! You can also support us while you shop using Amazon Smile. And after you've done that, watch Trio Anneaux's award-winning act - wow!

Responding to your Requests: Outcomes of the October 2015 Student Survey

In October, we sent out a Student Survey to see what you were looking for as Circus Center students, and how we could continue making your training experience better. Read More

Circus Healing: Giovanna Piumarta’s Road to Recovery

Written by Phoenix Paz, Sales and Marketing Coordinator

Giovanna Piumarta celebrates her one year anniversary with Circus Center this November. Coming three times a week, she trains Aerial Hoop with Caroline and Static Trapeze with Elena.  

Early one Wednesday morning, she walked into my office, her big dark eyes bright, a smile playing along her pink lips.  Joy radiated from her as she shook my hand and took a seat.  

“Thank you for coming to see me,” I said.

“It’s my pleasure.  I’m so thrilled to share my story; Circus Center has changed my life.”


At 27 years old, Giovanna Piumarta found herself in the emergency room, the result of an inexplicable seizure that almost killed her. On the surface, she seemed healthy; a long time rock and tree climber, Giovanna had always been strong — physically at least. But she nonetheless suffered from bouts of self-doubt, anxiety, and despair, hating herself and fearing the world around her.

When she woke from the seizure in the hospital, the doctors told her what they had found: she was born with a blood vessel malformation in her brain and there was extra blood feeding the part of the cerebral cortex that controls fear, anxiety, doom, and despair. The result was frequent internal brain seizures which would eventually lead to death through seizure or stroke.  She had a 2% chance of survival if she allowed the seizures to continue.

The doctors could fix it with surgery, they told her, but the process was not without risks.  Giovanna decided to go for it.  She was tired of living afraid and the surgery opened the possibility to live the way she always dreamed about.  It offered hope.  She woke up from the operating table unable to talk, walk, read, or write.  “It was scary to wake up from the surgery,” she reflected, “because no one had expected my loss of ability to speak, read or write. It scared the pants off them [the doctors]! They thought they had messed something up while in there.”  However, with patience, determination and hard work, Giovanna began to relearn her basic motor skills.


Eight months after her surgery, Giovanna considered how far she had come and asked herself: Where do I want to go from here?  What do I want to do with my life?

I want to climb trees and join the circus, she responded.

A quick Google search returned Circus Center and in through our doors she walked.

“I remember my first day,” Giovanna recounted with a smile.  “Kelli was behind the desk.  When I walked through the doors, I felt positive; I felt the joy and the love this place has to offer.  I walked up to Kelli and said ‘I want to do circus.  Where do I start?’”

After determining Giovanna’s interests and finding out where Giovanna was in her recovery process, Kelli helped Giovanna enroll in Friday morning Aerial Conditioning with Elena.

“I was so scared,” Giovanna laughed, “I didn’t want to be stared at.  I didn’t want anybody to notice if I couldn’t keep up.  However, when I came to class, I discovered Circus Center was nothing like that.” Her eyes glowed as she continued: “My favorite memory is actually that first week – and all the following ones – where I couldn’t make it all the way across the floor doing the warm-up exercises.  Nobody stared or called me weak; I was encouraged, but accepted at my limits. I was loved and supported, not dismissed.  Right from the very first.  That’s what makes Circus Center special.”

When I asked what she loves most about training at Circus Center, Giovanna’s answer was instantaneous: the people.

“Google brought me here, but the community is why I stay. The students and the teachers have shown me that I matter.  I was in trapeze this week, and Elena said ‘Good job; you can write now,’ when she saw me taking notes on the lesson from the day.  She remembered.  She remembered that I couldn’t write when I first came and she celebrated my triumph with me.  I love that about this place: the instructors know all of their students, their stories, and work with each one individually.”


As we walked to the Baby Trapeze Room to take photos, Giovanna confessed: “I admit it; I love looking at my progress pictures. They fill me with pride.”  She continued, “When I started class, I couldn’t walk in a straight line.  However, regular practice and consistent exercises every week in conditioning paid off.  I knew what was expected of me and I could feel the progress as my body began to know what I was asking of it.  I’ve regained the strength I had before the seizure and more.  I have exceeded all my previous strength levels.”

Seeing how far she has come, Giovanna is excited to continue her circus journey. “Coming to Circus Center fills me with joy and calm.  Here is where I come to celebrate achievements and encourage myself, make new friends while finally feeling calm. I let go of the doom and despair at the front door.  I’ve never needed to feel afraid or nervous here; just by coming, I’m on my way to doing the impossible.”

Her biggest dream, she shyly admitted, is spinning on the Hoop.  “I’ve wanted to spin forever; it seems so electrifying.  With my head, I never thought I could, but the doctors say my brain looks better than it ever has and that they think circus has been one of the main reasons.” Additionally, Giovanna dreams of one day performing Duo Trapeze with her best friend Ashley Leonard, who also trains at Circus Center.  

Less than two years after surgery, Giovanna is strong and confident – a confidence she attributes to Circus Center – and feels that her time at the Center has completely changed the way she sees and deals with the world.  She works as an environmental educator at the Presidio and since starting her training, Giovanna has found the courage to start her own business, Pinecone Botanicals, where she creates her own salves and essential oils, collecting the ingredients by hand locally.   She is excited about her new callus cream and sharing it with her friends and fellow students. “I’m living my dreams,” she concluded. “I’m outside, climbing trees, and doing circus.  I’m happy.”

To find out more about Giovanna’s salves and essential oils, check out her website: www.pineconebotanicals.etsy.com.

To learn more about how to support Circus Center's programs, please visit Circus Possible, our Winter Giving Campaign.

Launching Circus Possible: Our Winter Giving Campaign

During this season, we celebrate "Circus Possible" - all the things that circus has given us, and everything we are going to achieve together next. Our annual giving campaign is live, and over the next few weeks, we'll be sharing just a few of your amazing stories about what circus has made possible: Read More

Winter 2016 Schedule Release

We are excited to announce the opening of Winter 2016 Session Enrollment tomorrow! Classes will open for Full Session Enrollment on Tuesday, November 10 at 10:00am.

We haven't made too many changes to this schedule from what has been working well this fall, but there are a few things to note:
  • Double Trapeze is now a General Level class
  • Straps Conditioning with Celine Masson is now on the schedule
  • Dance for Circus Performers is now called Beginning Contemporary Dance
  • More dance, at your request: Get your essential Ballet Basics with Svetlana on Monday nights
  • We've added a PLE 2 to Jim Donak's popular Physical Limitation Elimination course
  • Aerialists of all levels can practice at our new Supervised Aerial Open Gym on Sundays
To download a PDF of the above schedule, click here.

Click here to download a schedule spreadsheet with dates, times, and instructors.

A few notes for you:
  • If you need a prerequisite, make sure to get this ON YOUR ACCOUNT prior to tomorrow! If you don't have a prereq, we can't hold a spot for you.
  • If you call/email/come in prior to 10am, we will not be able to take your request. If you email prior to 10am, that email will go to the bottom of our list after we address the people who register after 10am. It's only fair!
  • Make sure the payment method on your account is updated. If the payment doesn't go through, we will notify you, but we may not be able to hold the spot for you.
  • Session enrollment is FINAL SALE. No changing classes, no sharing with another person, and there is ONE MAKE-UP per session. Exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis and ONLY with a documented medical issue.
  • You can sign up for winter classes using Class Packs starting November 30.
  • The Student Services Team will be very busy with session enrollments tomorrow, so they will be unable to handle most other requests. Thank you in advance for your understanding.
The session runs from January 4 to March 26, 2016. Most classes will meet 12 weeks, except classes on Sundays, which meet 11 weeks.


  General Session
Advanced Session
Premium Session
M-Sat (12 weeks) $216 $336 $360
Sun (11 weeks) $198 $308 $330

On Tuesday morning, November 10 at 10:00 am,
Call 415-759-8123 or send an e-mail to info@circuscenter.org to enroll!

News from Three Circus Center Alums

Duo AmazonsDuo Anivia

Cameron McHenry just finished her engagement at Zirkus Nemo in Denmark, with the double trapeze act she performs with her partner, Iryna Bessonova, the Duo Amazons. After a few days back here in San Francisco, cruise ship audiences will be the next to thrill to their marvelous act, which you can see here!

Also, the Duo Anivia (Jordan Webb and Onna Dagerman, Professional Aerial Program), just appeared with their aerial bambou act on “Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde," Europe’s most popular TV variety show. It should air here on TV5 in the coming weeks. They will also be visiting in San Francisco at the end of the month.

Congrats to all, and we look forward to seeing you around soon!

From the ED: My First Conditioning Class

Last Tuesday marked my two-year anniversary here at Circus Center! I continue to be very happy with my job, this team, and all the good things we've already done for the organization and the even better things we're planning for its future.

But it's time for a little confession: with all that hard work — not to mention the arrival of my first child in January 2014, and breaking my ankle last December — I let a few things slip, including my personal health. Before I came to Circus Center, I wasn't circus fit, but I was reasonably fit and went to a gym regularly. Since arriving here, I've watched a lot of classes, studied curricula, and so on, but actually training myself? Well, I've taken a handful of classes here and there: a little Stretching with Phoenix, a little Flying Trapeze, even a few handstand sessions with Lu Yi. But nothing regular, and after two years, I figured it was high time to fix it. It's a privilege to work here, so it's a shame not to take advantage of it!

So, this fall, I've signed up for a session enrollment in Elena's Level 1 Aerial Conditioning class, and today was my first class. A few highlights from a really enjoyable 90 minutes:
  • We started with conditioning exercises, some of which were familiar and mostly doable: burpees, jumping jacks, superman something-or-others. In one exercise, we started from hollow-body position with legs together, then raised our legs over our heads until the toes touched the floor and back. Tough, but okay. But next we were supposed to put our legs in straddle and raise them the same way — yikes! My hands had to help my hips up.
  • Some great stretching, where I was reminded what I already had learned in Phoenix's class: upper-body, fine (my shoulders are naturally pretty open). Lower-body, meager. So, that's my starting place.
  • Several of us were new, so we all got introduced to the apparatus and did our first hanging positions and climbed the rope a bit at the end. This really put in perspective the importance of everything we had done up until that point.
Anyway, it was a good class. Because most of us were new, Elena's technical knowledge was tapped very little, but her kindness and encouragement were very much on display, and I loved that. Not only that, I needed it! I'll probably have some weird soreness tomorrow, but I'm already looking forward to next week.

Feel free to leave words of encouragement — or your own stories — in the comments. I'll report back from time to time about my progress. See you in class!

Welcome to Our New Website!

We are very happy to present to you our new Circus Center website! We hope that it makes your experience as a student, audience member, or supporter a better, more exciting and enriching one.

MindBody Integration: Our new site is built on a platform that integrates directly with MindBody Online, our class registration system. This means that you'll be able to perform most basic functions for purchasing and scheduling classes right from our website. The integration is improving all the time, but it isn't perfect, so if you prefer, you can still use the original MindBody Online interface, accessible under the "ACCOUNTS" tab on the menu.

A Better Blog: Our new blog works, well, like a blog should! So we'll be using the blog much more often for updates about Circus Center activities.

As with any new website, we'll be spending the next few weeks working out the kinks and making corrections, so if you see something that seems wrong, just send an email to barry [AT] circuscenter [DOT] org. Thank you!