Trapeze School: Catcher Lala Araki grabs student Mila Sussman during a practice session. Photo by Thomas Leffler

Aerial acrobatics are nothing new for Kenna Stevens, but taking flight as the new head of Santa Monica Trapeze School has been her most daring descent yet.

In April, Stevens was handed the management reins of Trapeze School New York’s branch on the Santa Monica Pier, which was led by Anne and Dave Brown since 2008. Though she doesn’t officially become the school’s owner until the start of 2024, Stevens has been at the forefront of converting the location to Santa Monica Trapeze School, an independent endeavor strongly supported by the area.

Like the art of acrobatics, the search for fundraising was trial-and-error, with an initial investor quest receiving little feedback. Stevens’ next plan was a leap of faith, creating a GoFundMe online fundraising campaign that unexpectedly blew up with little advertising.

“I didn’t think it was going to work, and 24 hours [later], we raised $32,000,” Stevens said. “It was insane. I was overwhelmed, I was crying the entire week … it was really just the community and the people that loved us, loved this place, showing [support], it was so overwhelming.”

After another online fundraising push, Santa Monica Trapeze School was climbing up the platform to its September opening. The school is located between two Pier landmarks, the Playland Arcade and Pacific Park, and is looking to compete for visitors’ attention by offering a family-friendly space and more accessibility for first-timers. At a discounted price point, the school is now offering “first-time flier” sessions lasting 30 minutes, so tourists can fit in a truncated class during a busy travel day. For visitors that enjoy the session, the school offers more advanced two-hour classes as their next step.

“I want people to feel like they’re welcome in our space and they don’t have to be a professional to be here … as long as you know where your feet are and you have a good attitude, we can make magic happen,” Stevens said.

Flying trapeze as an art form was invented in 1859 by Frenchman Jules Léotard, and has continuously evolved since. The first time flier sessions cover “ground school,” where visitors learn the ropes without the pressure of the raised platform. After the ground learning, first-timers climb up the ladder, meet a platform instructor, grab their fly bar and take a small hop off the platform. The next step is hooking knees for a knee-hang, something Stevens said is muscle memory for those who hung on monkey bars as a child.

The final possibility for the 30-minute session is working with a catcher, who grabs the hands or legs of the flier for a dazzling display. Teaching the fundamentals of the art form reminded Stevens of her first time visiting a trapeze lesson under the guidance of Trapeze School New York.

“They were like ‘do you want to go upside down,’ and I said, ‘that’s all I ever really wanted.’ When you’re upside down, most other things don’t matter.”

Moving to Santa Monica from New Mexico in hopes of becoming a stand-up comedian, that first class led Stevens down a different path, moving from student to employee and eventually into management. She says her love of the art form comes from “the circus aspect” of trapeze, as well as the ever-evolving nature of the swinging.

To enhance the circus theme, Stevens received a wine barrel from Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, painting the barrel in classic circus style for photo opportunities. She hopes that the more colorful school, along with the first-timer classes, will make her endeavor more approachable to tourists, especially with the first “Locals’ Night” of the season hitting the Pier on Thursday.

“I tend to love to celebrate the art [of trapeze], so I’m leaning a bit more towards circus … it’s going to be fun to see how the school evolves,” Stevens said.

Thomas Leffler has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Broadcast Journalism from Penn State University and has been in the industry since 2015. Prior to working at SMDP, he was a writer for AccuWeather and managed...