Zip Zap Circus students and instructors practice pyramids at Savoy Elementary School. (James Buck/The Washington Post)

After classes at Savoy Elementary School in Anacostia are dismissed and the buses have come and gone, a cluster of students file into a classroom in the back of the building.

They kick off their shoes, put on matching T-shirts over their school uniforms and squeeze red foam noses on top of their own. The transformation is instant: Kids become clowns and the room, a circus tent.

This is Zip Zap Circus, an after-school elective supported by the nonprofit organization Higher Achievement that teaches physical education to middle-schoolers by way of circus training. The program, which admits about 20 students from schools around Ward 8, includes tumbling, clowning and juggling practices three days a week during the academic year.

Elizabeth Tomber, 29, one of Zip Zap’s instructors, said that circus exercises come with lessons that are helpful to children from low-income communities who might struggle in school. Cooperation, communication and trust are taught through group activities such as movement mimicry and human pyramids. Students are encouraged to praise each other for their efforts, overcome their differences and express themselves when they need help.

“The circus teaches you to balance priorities, juggle responsibilities and literally lift up others,” Tomber said. “It’s a cooperative spirit.”

Created to teach tolerance and teamwork, circuses such as Zip Zap are known as “social circuses.” They exist all over the world, and many are supported at least partially by Cirque du Monde, a program of Cirque du Soleil for at-risk kids, including Zip Zap.

The original Zip Zap Circus was founded during apartheid in Cape Town, South Africa, and is based on those principles. Circus veterans Brent van Rensburg and Laurence Esteve sought to demonstrate that children from different cultures could overcome their differences through a common bond. By making their program free and open to anyone, they hoped to inspire interdependence in their communities. Today, Zip Zap South Africa tours around the world.

The District’s program, or Zip Zap USA, is the only Zip Zap chapter outside Cape Town, according to its Web site. In 1996, Washingtonians Jonathan Duell, Sheryl Sturges and their two children spent a year living in South Africa.

Duell, who most recently taught theater at Edmund Burke School in Cleveland Park, was producing television and radio documentaries about conflict resolution. Upon the family’s return in 1997, their 7-year-old daughter, Sara, attended a summer camp with a circus class. Her teacher, it turned out, had been an instructor at Zip Zap in Cape Town. The family met with van Rensburg and Esteve during their next visit.

“Sara was hooked,” Duell said. “She [later] went on to tour with them for six or seven years.”

Duell and Sturges were also hooked on Zip Zap, particularly the idea behind it.

“It was this magical social experiment of bringing kids together from all different backgrounds and forming a family of trust and creativity,” Duell said. “That model was not only a metaphor for what South Africa was trying to do but it had enormous value in Washington, too.”

Duell and Sturges partnered with Higher Achievement and founded the District’s chapter in 2008. After successful pilot programs in wards 4 and 7, Zip Zap offered its first year-long elective at Center City Charter School’s Capitol Hill campus in 2010 before settling at Savoy Elementary in Ward 8 last fall.

Tomber said that although several centers have requested a circus elective, the program is still small. She, along with instructors Christine Soykal and Kolleen Richards, run the group and are paid by a twice annual donation from Higher Achievement. The Ward 8 center was where they felt they’d be most effective.

“Ultimately, we decided we can do the most good here in Ward 8,” Tomber said.

Although the South African program is for all ages, the U.S. one is for grades five to eight, a critical age for circus participation, Duell said.

“Middle school is that difficult floating time between childhood and adulthood,” he said. “The circus is a way for students to play like kids while learning skills they’ll need when they make the switch to adulthood.”

Middle school was around the time Sara Duell began circus training. Now 22, she is a professional circus performer in Montreal and recently spent three months at a social circus school in one of Mexico City’s poorest neighborhoods.

Soykal said that although the physical successes of social circuses are evident — she has a student who previously could not sit still and can now complete an hour of yoga — the instructors also emphasize emotional development. Every new activity is an opportunity to tap into a hidden talent and find empowerment. And when students find themselves excelling, they teach their skills to the rest of the group.

“This is the magic of the circus,” Soykal said. “It shows you things you didn’t know were possible, even within yourself.”

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