John MacGaffey (Comm. ‘15) was a second-year Northwestern student when his circus class was separated into two groups of students to duel it out. They were trying to see which team could endure longer handstands. Along with those topsy-turvy competitions, the course pushed him to experiment with tumbling, juggling and performing on the trapeze.
Now, MacGaffey works full-time as the marketing and operations manager of Actors Gymnasium. The circus school and theatre company, which is across the street from Coffee Lab, is run by the same instructor who taught MacGaffey years ago: Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi.
Hernandez-DiStasi’s circus credentials sparkle bona fide. Growing up, she performed in actual circuses, like the famed Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“I have a picture of myself sitting in front of [my parents’] circus tent at three months old,” she said in Best of SNO. “I was always a part of it.”
Hernandez-Distasi still teaches Circus Movement for the Stage, the course MacGaffey took as an undergraduate. She also works full-time as the artistic director of Actors Gymnasium. Both her positions at Northwestern and Actors Gymnasium are tangible representations of her belief that learning circus skills is for everybody and every body, no matter one’s gender or background.
The circus norms Hernandez-DiStasi grew up under tended to propagate misogynist rules for who could do what. As a young woman and the sole daughter in her family, she had to fight against the circus’s social conventions. Girls wore fancy costumes while boys wore pants. The men performed as strongmen while the women were show-pony flyers.
But at Actors Gymnasium, Hernandez-DiStasi made sure that everybody would do everything. All of the students learn the same skills, and the costumes aren’t gendered.
According to Lucy Carapetyan (Comm. ‘06), the special events manager at Actors Gymnasium, Hernandez-DiStasi created the school to manifest her vision of a more inclusive circus world than the one she grew up in.
“She founded the gym out of a desire to make the thing she grew up doing all her life – that was in her blood and her bones – to break that open and make it accessible to people beyond just folks who happened to have been born into it,” Carapetyan said.
Hernandez-DiStasi began performing in the circus at 7 years old. She lived with her parents and four brothers in a motorhome every year from March to November, criss-crossing the country for up to 500 shows in a year.
Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Hernandez-DiStasi and her family performed as the Hernandez Troupe. Their act was “often billed as the ‘bouncing, twisting titans of the teeterboard’” according to the Circus Ring of Fame’s introduction to the group.
“I think my life was different. I don’t think it was extraordinary. It was just my life,” Hernandez-DiStasi said.
Although she adored performing, Hernandez-DiStasi exited Ringling Bros. in her mid-20s. She left because she wanted to finish strong – literally. In her troupe, she had witnessed an older woman with bad knees struggling to meet the same exacting caliber as everyone else. Hernandez-DiStasi decided to leave at the peak of her physicality.
In 1995, after Hernandez-DiStasi had moved to Chicago, she and three others decided to take advantage of an available space on Noyes Street and establish Actors Gymnasium. The school’s website emphasizes its commitment to providing options for all ages and levels, from classes for kids to courses for people over 16.
MacGaffey described the company’s deep belief in the idea that learning circus skills encompasses more than the visible skills of riding a unicycle or perfecting a handstand.
“It is the physical and emotional strength that comes from discovering you are capable of much more than you thought,” MacGaffey said. “That’s the real magic of Actors [Gymnasium].”
Over her career, Hernandez-DiStasi transitioned from entertaining audiences to empowering would-be audience members to enter the ring themselves. She finds her unofficial role as the ringmaster of Actors Gymnasium to be as thrilling as performing under the big top.
“This job? Certainly not normal.” Hernandez-DiStasi said. “I am doing exactly what I love to do.”
Thumbnail image courtesy of Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi / Actors Gymnasium.