Learning to ‘Fly’ at Vassar

Professional Clown Hannah Gaff Teaches the Basics of Acrobatics
Photos by Karl Rabe, video by Jim Sulley and Craig Bonheur

It certainly wasn’t your typical Vassar College class: Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon throughout the Spring Semester, nine students met in the Athletics and Fitness Center for some training in how to become acrobats.

Group of people on a mat practicing dramatic acrobatics.
The class choreographed its own group performance for the final exam.

The class, taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of Drama Hannah Gaff—who is, among other things, a professional clown—involved instruction in tumbling and other physical skills, often combined with choreographed, interactive activity with a partner or in groups.

“I do this for a living—I’m an actor and an acrobat,” said Gaff, a member of Clowns Without Borders, a troupe of actors who put on humorous physical skits at refugee camps, disaster sites, and other venues throughout the world where people who have undergone trauma could use a few laughs. “My theater training enables me to integrate acrobatics into drama, to teach students how to use their bodies to communicate emotions and better portray their characters.”

Person seated on a gym floor addressing a group of seated people.
Hannah Gaff, Visiting Assistant Professor of Drama and a member of Clowns Without Borders, indicates her approval during the final exam.

Sarah Schuster ’25, an education major from Pleasantville, NY, said she was certain the skills she learned would be useful in her post-Vassar career. “I’ve been dancing since I was little, and I want to teach performing arts, so this class combined my passions for teaching and theater,” Schuster said.

Two other students said they planned to apply what they had learned in the class to enhance their creative theater skills. “I’m a playwright, but I don’t have a great relationship with my body,” said Foster Schrader ’25, a drama major from New York City. “Learning some of these acrobatic techniques will help me incorporate more physical movement into my writing.”

A group of people on a gym mat holding hands and taking a bow.
The newly trained acrobats take a bow.

Abby Bettencourt ’25, a drama major from Beverly, MA, said she had been active in sports when she was in high school, but an injury had forced her to curtail most physical activity. She said she decided to take the course after working with Gaff on a play she had directed for the Drama Department last fall. “I was impressed with Hannah’s methods and the skills she taught the actors,” Bettencourt said. “I struggle with physical movement now, so this class forced me out of my comfort zone. We really push each other in this class, but Hannah makes it all doable. She makes it a safe place to take risks.”

June 5, 2024