PORTLAND – If running away and joining the circus is on a child’s mind, students won’t have to travel far now. The founders of the Circus Conservatory of America, a new performing arts college scheduled to open in Portland next year, have launched a local recreational circus program called Circus Atlantic.
Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, students in grades 2-6 from Freeport, Yarmouth, Cumberland and Falmouth, meet with coach Sellam el Ouahabi in the Community Room at Merriconeag Waldorf School, where they are learning to challenge their bodies and minds in the pursuit of circus arts. El Ouahabi is assisted by other coaches, who work with him to learn his style and how to adapt gymnastics or other athletic skills to the circus world.
Born in Tangiers, Morocco, el Ouahabi has spent his life in circus and is considered to be one of the top circus coaches in New England. Having learned acrobatics and tumbling in the traditional style from masters as a young boy, he was recruited at 13 years old for his first circus contract, and moved on to tour Europe, Asia and South America.
In 2008, he transitioned out of the ring to full-time coaching at circus schools in Europe before he was recruited by Circus Smirkus, a renowned youth circus based in Vermont, to come to the United States to serve as the traveling coach of the Big Top Tour. Since 2009, el Ouahabi has worked with the Circus Smirkus troupers continuously as the show moves throughout New England.
“When Sellam first came to Freeport a few years ago, we could tell he was an exceptional person. Not only because he was so soft-spoken and kind, but because it was apparent that all the Smirkus troupers had such huge respect for him. They love him,” said Trace Salter, who worked with Merriconeag as Circus Smirkus presenter from 2004-2012, and now serves as development director for the new conservatory.
It was on the Big Top Tour that el Ouahabi first came to appreciate Maine and especially Freeport.
“Of all the places we travel with Smirkus, my students love Maine the most. The people are all very kind to us and they care about circus,” said el Ouahabi. “For me, this makes sense, because Maine immediately reminds me of all the best places I’ve been throughout the world as a performer. For those who appreciate the circus, they understand that it is about community and helping each other in every way. There’s a community here that I can feel, and it’s asking for more circus.”
The conservatory team first offered Circus Atlantic as a six-week day camp this summer at North Yarmouth Academy.
Considered a professional-level coach, el Ouahabi has had offers to train top circus artists and work at schools around the world. With the world apparently at his calling, why Maine?
“I’ve always wanted to build something, something new that is for the kids. They come first. I’ve seen all kinds of coaching in my life,” he said. “Personally, I like to build a strong foundation with the kids: I like to see how they work, how they think, and build up a friendship with them. I like to see them build confidence and respect for themselves. The rest will follow.”
As part of a traditional Waldorf curriculum, the circus arts has been an important component of Merriconeag studies for more than a decade through the tutelage of Merriconeag circus arts instructor John Saccone, said Salter.
Christine Sloan, administrator at Merriconeag, feels the instruction and level of professional circus arts teaching el Ouahabi brings is a perfect complement.
“Circus plays an important role in the life of our school,” she says, “Being able to participate in the emergence of a larger circus culture in Maine is an opportunity our school is eager to embrace.”
El Ouahabi is bringing his coaching style to Maine not only by offering classes to students at Merriconeag, but also by recruiting coaches to work alongside him in classes. Virginia Fullagar, a student at Freeport High School, attended Merriconeag as a student for nine years and is now one of these coaches in training. Having trained at Circus Smirkus camp for several summers, Fullager is assisting with the Merriconeag classes and attending advanced classes with el Ouahabi during the evening at North Yarmouth Academy.
“Virginia is a perfect young ambassador for this program,” said Salter. “The great thing about these classes is that it is available to all area students who might not have access to the circus arts.”
As for the teaching, el Ouahabi keeps it simple.
“Little by little,” he said, “Concentrate, concentrate, and concentrate.”
A CLOSER LOOK
The Circus Arts After-school Classes are Mondays and Wednesdays, through Dec. 11, at Merriconeag Waldorf School, 57 Desert Road, Freeport. Track 1, grades 2-5, 3:30-4:45 p.m. Track 2, grades 5 and up, 5-6:15 p.m. Cost is $425.
To register visit www.circusatlantic.com.