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About the Artist Athlete

     After a decade of training, teaching, and performing circus all over the world, Shannon McKenna packed up her fake eyelashes, carabiners, and swivels and moved back in with her parents in Atlanta, GA. Like so many artists entering their 30s, she wanted something different out of her life, but what?

All she knew was that the circus world was changing from when she first touched a trapeze 10 years ago. She wanted to figure out where she fit in this shifting industry.

Out of sheer luck, her friend, former student, and physical therapist, Jennifer Crane came to town leading some of her own workshops for her company, Cirque Physio. The two met for coffee and a walk through the city. It was on that walk that the good Dr. Crane suggested to Shannon that she collect all the information she taught in one of her most popular workshops and create an e-book- “also, you should start a podcast.” Jen suggested. 

           Ever the compliant patient, Shannon obliged. She began an extensive project, researching, writing, and videoing herself and her students. She reached out to accomplished friends from all corners of the globe to record interviews in which they reflected on their careers as artists and offered advice to future generations. She decided she needed to get adult and official with the damn thing. She needed to make this whole project a company.

           But what to call it?

           It was not a fitness company- Shannon rejected the unhealthy capitalist fitness culture that pushed impossible body standards on her. But it was not solely a creative endeavor- there was science and merit and a (flimsy, but existent) business plan in place to ensure that whatever the hell was going on, it was in service to the community that gave Shannon so much. The great question was how to merge artistry and athletics.

           The Artist Athlete became the working title and then, it stuck around.

           Since its official incorporation in 2018, The Artist Athlete produced three e-books on aerial technique, collectively selling over 1,000 copies. The Artist Athlete Podcast boasts downloads from 71 countries and received acclaim from the American Circus Educators and Circus Talk.

           Like the journey of the circus industry itself, The Artist Athlete is still making and remaking itself. Throughout the changing landscape our mission is always clear: to provide artistic inspiration through the stories of professionals in the industry and to supply information about best practices for training.

About the Founder

Shannon McKenna wasn’t a gymnast or a dancer, but she was one hell of a tree climber, and from an early age was most at home in the spotlight.

           After attending a high school for the performing arts in her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, she earned her BFA from New York University and co-founded the physical theater company, Fish & Bicycle. Explorations with her company members led Shannon to Canopy Studios in Athens, GA where she tried her first aerial silks class. Without much idea of what it meant, Shannon decided, then and there, to become a circus artist. She spent a year training intensively at Canopy before moving to Vermont and spending three years at The New England Center for Circus Arts, but Shannon wanted more! She moved to Texas and began gigging and teaching flying trapeze.

         The legendary San Francisco was her next stop, where she studied under the greats such as Serchmaa Byamba and Elena Panova. She also began instructing straps classes at Kinetic Arts in Oakland and the legendary San Francisco Circus Center. It was there that she realized how her outside of the box thinking and beginning circus as an adult helped her develop a fresh way of explaining and applying concepts for her students.

Alongside her practicing and coaching, her performing career flourished. She expressed herself through professional contortion, straps, trapeze, and aerial fabric performances.  It spanned from traditional shows in large arenas to intimate contemporary pieces in small black box theaters.  She performs as a solo artist, a part of artistic duos, and ensembles for companies such as Girls on Trapeze, The Royal Hanneford Circus, and Lone Star Circus. Internationally, she has been seen in a Christmas circus in Portugal, atop a sway pole in Switzerland, and on the German cabaret circuit, to name a few.

In 2018, she launched The Artist Athlete, a company dedicated to bridging the gap between her students and the great circus performers of the time, by creating products that teach strong foundational aerial technique and producing a weekly podcast that shares the stories of artists from all over the world.

She currently stays in Montreal with her cat, Puppy.

Chop Wood Carry Water

“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

                                                                                                                                         -Ancient Zen Koan     


On the surface, circus is a flashy endeavor. There are the sequins, the epic music, the death-defying feats. You’re in the circus? How crazy? How exciting? Your job must never be dull!

However, behind the curtain, those of us who have done this for years know the months of trying and failing, the tiny drills that seem like nothing, and the monotonous grind required to prepare the body for this art form.

After I came back to the circus world after my second break from training, I adopted the phrase “chop wood carry water.” I would write this mantra in my daily journal and I began posting it online but never alongside choreography or flashy skills. It was my reminder to myself, and the rest of the world, that finding joy in the necessary repetitions was how I got through this part of the job. It caught on and others started tagging me in their conditioning. The days where, in the absence of motivation, they were able to adopt a mantra that allowed them to do the work that makes circus such a magical labor of love.

The Artist Athlete Library provides the tools and materials necessary to build the acrobatic body.