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Our Team

Founder of Aloft circus arts Shayna Swanson smiling in a black and white photo with a bejweled headpiece

Shayna Swanson (she/her)

Founder & Owner

Shayna Swanson is an award-winning circus artist, director, and founder of Aloft Circus Arts. Her artistic work embraces the value of bravery, pushing the limits of physicality and emotion, described by the Chicago Reader as “truly heartfelt and creative”. Shayna developed her circus voice in the land before social media, in the “Circus Wild West”, a world of shoddy trapezes hung from trees and sneaking into warehouses for shows. While she’s learned better safety practices, the punk rock ethos still nips at her heels. Her latest shows "Brave Space" and "Sanctuary Cabaret" currently tour internationally  to sold out audiences and rave reviews while her school, in a customized 118 year old Chicago church, molds bold new artists for careers in national and international companies and festivals. Shayna is committed to supporting the bright and brave future of American circus.

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Zoë Sheppard (she/her)

Studio Manager, Head Rigger, & Director of Adult Recreational Program

Zoë is abundantly proficient in both the creative, performance side of circus arts as well as the technical and management skills of operating in the circus business. She specializes in Cyr wheel, aerial silks, and aerial rope. Zoë began her circus training at Aloft Circus Arts in 2008. In 2010, Zoë joined the teaching staff at Aloft and quickly became one of the most beloved and trusted instructors. Two years later she was invited to become a senior company member of the Aloft performance ensemble. Simultaneously, she was promoted to studio manager and head rigger. She has performed at numerous events and in ensemble shows throughout the United States. Most recently she performed, toured, and was the rigging and costume designer for Aloft’s newest immersive circus show, Brave Space.

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Zoë Sheppard our Head Rigger pictured high up in the ceiling on the rigging truss
Kristi, our director of youth and professional programming, is smiling while holding her two cats in her arms

Kristi Alyssa (she/her)

Director of Youth Programming &
Manager of Professional Training Programs

Kristi wears many hats at Aloft, a community she is very passionate about! She has been with us since 2009 and is also the Founder/Director of the Aloft Youth Ensemble @aloftyouthensemble, a coach, performer and a photographer (@kristialyssaphotos). She has been involved in circus since 2007 (starting circus with ISU’s Gamma Phi Circus, then going on to graduate from NECCA and Aloft’s Pro-Training programs). Kristi is a highly in-demand lyra instructor in the Chicago area (affectionately called “the lyra army leader” by her students.) She is known for building community amongst her students and fostering environments where close friendships and group bonding thrive. She also enjoys performing and coaching duo work, trapeze, lollipop/plyra, silks, flexibility, act creation, hand-balancing, juggling, diabolo and more. She is currently directing and producing a full length contemporary circus show (co-produced by Aloft) entitled “Way Home” premiering July 19th-21st at Aloft Circus Arts (more info - @reminiscentcircus or

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Sarah Tapper (she/they)

Registration & Front Desk Manager

Sarah first came to Aloft in 2016 after moving to Chicago to join the Aloft full time program. After graduating she started coaching Tightwire for the incoming professional students. Shortly thereafter, she joined the cast of Brave Space which has toured the US and internationally starting in 2018. As the most laid-back type-A person you will ever meet, she now also lends her talents to the admin team of Aloft, answering emails and wrangling vamp. She currently performs tightwire and single point trapeze and strives to create dynamic & funky circus. Her happy place is driving on a sunny day singing loudly. She lives in the van she built, is a mediocre ukulele player, and never late. ​

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Sarah, our registration coordinator, is smiling at the camera and has green curly hair
Kelly, our finance manager, has bright purple hair and glasses and is smiling

Kelly Mcdowell (she/they)

Finance Manager

Kelly found her way to circus in 2009 when a few teammates on the Windy City Rollers suggested she try a class at Aloft, and took her along to a conditioning class.  She fell in love with circus immediately and never left, working on Trapeze, Silks, Pole, and Stilts and dabbling in Rope, Lyra, Juggling, and Pogo.  Kelly has performed locally at student showcases, El Circo Cheapo, the Windy City Rollers Awards Ceremony, Heels Over Head, and misc gigs, as well as the Denver Aerial Acrobatics Arts Festival.  You are less likely to find her on stage these days, as she discovered that her true circus love is teaching.

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