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Lauren tightrope circusAuthor Lauren Licklider walks on a tight-rope with the help of Circus Harmony instructor and performer Terrance Robinson.
By Lauren Licklider
The trapeze wobbles as I grab the bar. I kick off, and with the help of my teacher my feet are on the bar next to my hands. I try to remember the next step from here, but my body glides into it naturally.
Hanging upside down staring at the red carpet below, I wrap my feet around the trapeze ropes, pull up with my arms, and push my body into an inverse position looking out into the circus ring’s seating. A part of me is scared that my arms will give out, or that I will fall. I’m self-conscious of how I look, afraid that I seem like a ridiculous novice or an uncoordinated klutz. But I also feel a rush. Adrenaline is pulsing through me, and even though there isn’t a crowd sitting in the half-moon theatre, the bright lights are shining upon me. I feel alive, consumed by the circus.
"Hurry! Hurry! Step right in!" she yells to passersby wandering outside of the circus ring. Visitors pile into the wooden seats surrounding the flashy ring. Equipment lines the ceiling: an assortment of trapeze bars, silks, and even a lyra. Music starts and the ringmaster takes the stage. She announces the tantalizing acts to follow: a young man on a trapeze, an award-winning juggler who is only 14, and an aerial contortionist.
Little kids sit mesmerized in the audience, adults impressed. It is easy to forget that the performers are young adults, and the circus is inside the St. Louis City Museum and not a big-top tent. But that’s how dedicated and energetic these performers are. They take you away with their passion and love for the circus. Passion so palpable you can’t help but be inspired. And that’s just what the ringleader wants.
Jessica Hentoff is more than a ringmaster for Circus Harmony. She is its creator, its nurturer, its mother, and its advocate. A longtime circus enthusiast, Jessica began the St. Louis Arches in 1989 and Circus Harmony in 2001 with the mission to teach acceptance through the circus. At its core, the concept of social circus is simple—use circus arts to promote social change.
“What we show them is it doesn’t matter where you are from, what race you are, your religion, or where you go to school. What matters is what do you do? What do you bring to the ring?” Jessica explains.
Jessica’s experience with social circus began at a young age, starting at 18 as a clown. In the summer after her first year of college (which she did not finish), she applied to 50 different circuses for whatever job was available. “I would’ve watered the elephants,” she says.
Finally, one circus organized by a Methodist reverend responded. At first she didn’t even consider it because she was Jewish. He assured her that it was about more than this, that many different people were a part of this circus. So she took a leap of faith and ultimately got her first true taste of social circus. In addition to regular shows, the circus performed for audiences that could not come to it—prisoners, orphans, and seniors in senior living homes. Jessica says that this is what opened her eyes to the concept of social circus before that phrase even existed.
She went on to be a founding member of the Big Apple Circus in New York City and Circus Flora in St. Louis. It was here with Circus Flora that a community outreach program began. The St. Louis Arches, a small circus troupe comprised of children and young adults, was developed, and the program traveled to schools around the area to teach children. In 2001, Circus Flora could no longer financially support the St. Louis Arches, but Jessica could not bear the thought of abandoning what she viewed as crucial community education. Thus began Circus Harmony.
Today, it lives in the St. Louis City Museum and reaches 800 to 1,000 kids each year, a far jump from the original 10 when it first began. Her first show, Circus Salaam Shalom, bridged the wide gap between a Jewish synagogue and Muslim mosque in St. Louis. She invited children from both to perform in a circus show together in the ring at City Museum, creating a sense of unity and togetherness between the two groups of children. “It’s about concentrating on what connects you instead of what divides you,” Jessica says.
Then in 2006, a rabbi from Israel invited Circus Harmony to travel there to perform with the newly developed Galilee Circus, a Jewish/Arab youth circus. At first, Jessica said no because the journey could be dangerous. But after a little inspiration from her oldest student, she agreed. A 79-yearold aspiring aerialist, Jessica’s student had a straightforward philosophy: Don’t think, “What if?” Think, “Why not?”
And it helped that Galilee Circus had a mission that aligned perfectly with that of Circus Harmony. “They wanted to foster a better understanding between Jews and Arabs, and they thought the arts would be a great way to do it,” Jessica says. “They chose circus because it’s nonverbal, it’s about overcoming fear, and it’s also about laughter.”
They couldn’t have been more right. Circus Harmony’s journey to Israel in 2007 was followed in the recently released documentary Circus Kids. In a deeply profound scene, members of Circus Harmony are piling off the bus—it was the fi rst time Circus Harmony met the Galilee Circus. “Everyone was just kind of standing there awkwardly,” Jessica says. Nobody knew what to say, until one of the Israeli kids took out some balls and started juggling. Then, one of the kids from Circus Harmony performed a take-away, where he took the balls from the other juggler. “That broke the ice because juggling was a language that they all spoke,” she says. Since then, Circus Harmony has traveled back to Israel once, and Galilee Circus has traveled here once, with another trip planned for this year.
True to her role as ringmaster of Circus Harmony, Jessica is juggling myriad tasks—she tells me all of these stories as she is putting makeup on summer camp performers.
“Do we get a nose?” Liora May-Rauschmann, 11, asks.
“No, because we don’t have any that would stay on,” Jessica responds.
When finished with Liora’s makeup, Jessica searches for a hat to give her to wear. She finds a patchwork pageboy cap—a relic from her days with the Big Apple Circus. “Here,” she says, handing it over. “This hat is historic.”
Then it’s J’llon Johnson’s turn.
“I can’t lick my lips, can I?” J’llon asks as Jessica paints bright red makeup onto his lips. She then gives him basic instructions for removing makeup, a foreign concept to a 13-year-old boy. “Clown makeup looks best if, when you smile, you don’t show your teeth,” Jessica instructs. “Go practice different faces in the mirror.”
Liora and J’llon are preparing for their first performances. Summer camps are two weeks long; the f rst week involves learning basic circus skills. In the second week, skills are refined, and campers perform a show every day for City Museum visitors.
Before the 2 PM show starts, the campers stand in a circle. Iking Bateman, an assistant teacher for Circus Harmony, gives them a pep talk and leads them in a breathing exercise. “Breathe in excellence,” he says. “Expel bad. Have fun, but be focused.”
Though the campers are not as skilled as the 12 PM performers, who are at intermediate and advanced levels, their energy is just as high. The show goes swimmingly. The campers’ faces show pride and excitement, and the audience loves them.
What makes Circus Harmony unique, besides the community outreach, its international involvement, and its social circus philosophy, is the commitment its teachers have. Circus Harmony recruits world-famous circus performers to teach, such as Rosa Yagaanstetseg, a contortionist and hand balancer originally from Mongolia.
Many of the camp teachers used to be students themselves, and many of them still perform. This transition from student to teacher gives them work experience and a chance to stay involved. A year ago, Iking began studying at the École Nationale de Cirque in Montreal, a competitive three-year program where two of Circus Harmony’s students were already enrolled. There is another circus school in Canada, the École de Cirque de Quebec in Quebec City. These programs are highly competitive; of the nearly 1,000 applicants at each school, around 15 are selected. Circus Harmony sent three students last year.
Scouting is taken seriously, Jessica says. Wherever they perform or teach, she is always on the lookout for potential students. Jessica found Terrance “T-Roc” Robinson tumbling on the streets in front of his school. She gave her business card to the security guard and asked him to pass the card along. Later on in the day, I will be learning basic circus arts with T-Roc, who has been with Circus Harmony for a little more than three years now and is one of the students who went to Quebec City in the fall.
All three of Jessica’s children are also avid circus performers. Elliana Hentoff-Killian joined T-Roc at the École de Cirque de Quebec in Quebec City. Keaton performs on the double-decker trapeze. He traveled to Canada and Europe to audition for four to five different circus schools. There are few circus schools in the United States because it’s not really viewed as an art form here, Keaton says. In Canada and Europe, it’s on par with theatre and dance companies.
Two summers ago, Kellin placed second at the International Jugglers’ Association Summer Festival three-club competition in Minnesota, beating out his idol Luke Wilson, who’s been on the cover of Juggle magazine.
The magic behind Circus Harmony stems from its steadfast dedication to diversity. Here, you will find children and young adults from all over St. Louis. Some come from well-off suburbs, and some come from the city itself.
“We’ve never turned anyone down,” Jessica says. Partial scholarships are offered to lower-income students because it is important to Jessica to remain committed to closing the gaps between race, religion, gender, and class.
“There’s this Jewish concept tikkun olam,” she says. “In the beginning of time, the world shattered, and it’s our job to put it back together. People use a variety of glues. You can use medicine, you can use music, you can use writing. I’ve just found that for me, it’s the circus. There’s something just extraordinary about circus. It’s like alchemy. It turns you into gold. ”
In my brief stint at the circus, I learned a few tricks. I performed tumbles, including the standby cartwheel and forward roll, both of which I have not attempted in years. I learned that while I was hopelessly inept at juggling and stilt walking, I wasn’t a lost cause when it came to spinning plates or walking the tight rope.
But what I really learned surprised me. For years, I’ve had this version of myself stuck in my head: She isn’t very graceful; she trips for no reason. She is terrified of being in front of a crowd, afraid of the intense pressure. She is incapable of anything athletic, and her hand-eye coordination is laughable.
The circus though—it blasted through these preconceived notions.
She is, it turns out, gold.
For more information about classes and shows at Circus Harmony, visit www. circusharmony.org.