A 93-year-old trapeze artist, a Webster University professor and his students, and an ex-Circus Arts professor all have one thing in common: their love for the circus and its performers.
By: Kayla Shepperd
Circus Harmony is a non-profit organization working to teach social justice to children through circus acts and performance.
Circus Harmony performs over 700 shows a year at the City Museum. It has a big show that occurs every last two weekends in January. The show includes a live band and a theme for every big show.
Jeffrey Carter is a professor and department chair for the music department at Webster University. Carter is the music director and composer for Circus Harmony. This is Carter’s second-year music directing for the circus school.
Circus Harmony was created to give more circus educational opportunities for children in the St. Louis metropolitan area. For the first project, it was called Circus Salaam Shalom where it brought Muslims and Jewish children together. The children would visit each other’s temples to get a better understanding of their fellow performers. Now, the organization has expanded to all children in the St. Louis area with different backgrounds. The circus school started off with 10 children and now it has expanded to over 14,000 children. Circus Harmony aimed to change the perception of how others viewed children with underprivileged backgrounds.
The school is open to all ages and levels. The oldest in the school is a 93-year-old trapeze artist and the youngest is three years old. At Circus Harmony, there’s room for everyone who wants to join the circus.
The executive director of Circus Harmony, Jessica Hentoff, founded the school to showcase children that are not given certain opportunities because of their race, religion, and socio-economic background.
“We consider ourselves a social circus using the teaching and performing of circus arts to motivate social change,” Hentoff said. “Using circus as an intervention tool for young people who are considered marginalized at risk, children who are challenged by their life circumstances, and by social inequality.”
Hentoff and Carter knew of each other by name and reputation. When she was looking for a music director and composer, Hentoff emailed Carter about the position. Carter was going on a sabbatical when Hentoff notified him about the opening. When Carter took the job, he became in charge of putting together a band and writing the music for the majority of the shows.
“It’s not about the music. It’s about what the kids are doing in the ring. The first thing I have to do is get to know who these kids were and watch them start to develop these acts,” Carter said.
By watching the acts the kids are doing, Carter comes up with an idea for the music. The theme for the show is called Fluente, an underwater theme. The title of the shows are Latin musical terms that correspond with the name of the organization.
“There’s a contortionist who’s dressed as an octopus. There are sailors on a ship who are trying to get the fish, it’s all about juggling.” Carter said. “Everything has an underwater adventure and you have underwater creatures. I have to write music that sounded like it might go well with being on the seashore or with being on a ship.”
When deciding who should be a part of the band for the show, Carter chooses people that he can trust and who resemble the organization.
“I try to put together a band that looks like the cast and I want to make sure that I have different genders and different ethnicities in the band,” Carter said.
Two Webster alumni are a part of the band: Jake Stergos who plays bass and Kasimu Taylor who plays the trumpet. Also in the band is pianist Noah Lovins who is a sophomore majoring in music directing for musical theater.
Lovins said Circus Harmony is his first circus gig and he wrote two pieces for the show. One student asked him to write some music for their act.
“On the day of dress rehearsal, he came up to me and sent me videos of his juggling act. I’m writing music for his act that he has a performance in early February,” Lovins said.
Last year, Lovins said he watched the children’s rehearsals before the band came in. He was amazed at the acts that the children were doing. Children aged four and five were walking on tightropes and doing other acrobatic stunts.
Joe Winters is the lead drummer in the band and is also a staff member at the Community Music School. Winters has been at Circus Harmony for four years. Over time, he has seen the children improve on their performance skills but also grow as individuals.
“A year is a long time and when you see [the kids], you’re like ‘Oh my gosh, you grew so much’ or ‘You’re doing all this different stuff now,’” Winters said. “The kids have a lot of questions for [the band] and hang out with us. It’s very communal.”
It’s a rewarding experience for Winters to work with the children and to be a part of Circus Harmony.
“They do a lot of good for the kids, and they stand for things that are important to me. There are a lot of ways to be involved with social justice,” Winters said. “It just so happens that I get to use my music and my abilities in that way to contribute.”
Hentoff said everyone at Circus Harmony has become like a second family.
“We create a community here that is really supportive and I think there are a lot of kids that don’t have that. Kids need that feeling of support, that emotional safety net, which is like a circus net, that’s what they find here,” Hentoff said.
According to Hentoff, circus teaches the art of life. For example, a kid falling off their unicycle or dropping during an act. Hentoff said that can not stop them.
“You can’t collapse in a puddle or run crying from the ring,” Hentoff said. “You do it again and while you’re learning to flip, and to fly, you’re learning important life skills like focus, persistence, teamwork and presenting yourself in public. It will help you in everything that makes you successful in the ring will also serve you outside the ring.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story cited Circus Harmony’s reason for forming as a way to connect Jewish and Muslim children. This has since been corrected to reflect the accurate reasons.