Defying Gravity

Mary Kelly Rayel ’89 flies through the air with the greatest of ease.    

By Judith Pratt

Mary Kelly Rayel can teach you to fly. Not in an airplane — on the flying trapeze.

After getting her B.A. in theater, Mary Kelly was accepted at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, graduating in their class of 1990. For the last 20 years, she has both performed and taught trapeze, gymnastics, and other circus skills. Now she runs Fly School Circus Arts in Upper Black Eddy, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

“I come from a show business family,” Mary Kelly explains. “My mother was an actress, and my father was a television producer and, before television, a radio announcer.” She grew up in Bucks County, where her father retired from television to run various businesses. “I’ve been fascinated with the circus since I was a kid,” she admits.

At Ithaca College, she was able to combine her love for theater with her love for athletics. “IC gave me a solid foundation,”
she says. “I got a top-notch theater program and top-notch Division III athletics. I still use what I learned from costume design, technical theater, directing, and theater history.

As a student-athlete, she played both field hockey and lacrosse. The IC lacrosse website notes that Mary Kelly still ranks among the program’s top goal scorers. “I had the most wonderful experience on those teams,” she recalls. “I’m still in touch with some of my teammates.” 

Combining theater and athletics created a bit of a culture clash. “The theater majors thought I was a jock, and the jocks thought I was an artsy-fartsy theater major,” Mary Kelly quips. Clown college reconciled those opposites. “Circus is an incredible combination of performance skills and athleticism,” she says, noting that the old, multigeneration circus families are giving way to specially trained people such as gymnasts and circus school graduates.

Mary Kelly went to a summer camp to teach clowning but ended up hooked on flying trapeze. She then spent three years teaching circus skills for Club Med in Florida, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. In weeklong sessions, children created a circus show, while adults participated in flying trapeze classes.

 “Anyone can try it,” says Mary Kelly, who has taught trapeze to people from age 3 to 83. “If you can climb the ladder, you can fly on the trapeze. You don’t have to be in super physical condition to try it. Some people have a hard time trusting that someone is going to catch them, or they are scared of heights or afraid to do something in front of a group. My goal is to make sure people have a great time and help them discover something new about themselves they didn’t know. If all you do is swing and drop into the net, we celebrate that accomplishment.” 

After Club Med, Mary Kelly toured as a flying trapeze artist with the 125th edition of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. One of the highlights of that tour for her was having so many IC friends come to see the shows all across the country.

In 1998, Mary Kelly settled back home in Bucks County, where she combines teaching and performance. She says she has been transitioning over the last few years from doing only flying trapeze to all-around variety arts entertainment. Since her equipment breaks down and fits in the back of a trailer, she has the freedom that portability brings. That has allowed her to schedule a double trapeze act that toured through Puerto Rico, perform aerial thrill acts at county fairs, teach gymnastics, and bring circus programs to children’s oncology camps. She often performs with friends from Ringling and has worked at a circus camp with recent Ithaca College alumna and ICircus founder Amy Cohen ’08.

Her passion for the aerial arts goes way beyond the thrill of defying gravity and normal human agility. “I really love how they change people and transform them, giving them a different perspective on their own capabilities and a sense of excitement about what is possible for them,” she says.