For Jessica Hentoff, circus arts are all about joy and triumph. The joy and triumph of mastering and performing death-defying aerial feats, for sure, but also the joy and triumph of teaching those same skills to students.
“Circus is so archetypical, it’s like being a superhero,” Hentoff says. “You are able to defy gravity; it’s just a phenomenal experience. As a performer, the first time you accomplish a trick, it’s a tremendous sharing of triumph. When you’re a teacher, the first time a student gets something, you share in that feeling — I get to be like Peter Pan and sprinkle magic circus dust on people and they can fly.”
The energy and passion Hentoff has for her work might be why she’s barely slowed down, even amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 virus. Instead of taking a break, the 64-year-old artistic and executive director has reworked the model of Circus Harmony, her St. Louis circus organization, to now offer its circus arts classes online.
Dubbed “quarantraining,” the free online classes range from juggling to hard-core conditioning, with courses designed for everyone from preschoolers to older adults.
“The best way to regain your balance is to take the next step forward, and I find that analogy works for quarantine,” Hentoff says. “All the things that we teach our kids about being flexible, creative, strong and resilient, these are all the qualities that you need to survive a pandemic — or to just survive real life. That’s why I love circus.”
Hentoff has been an active member of the circus community for more than 40 years, since she first discovered circus performing arts in college. She has spent years working in circuses all across the country, and was a founding member of the Big Apple Circus in New York as well as Circus Flora in St. Louis. In 1989 she founded the St. Louis Arches, a youth circus performance troupe, and in 2001, she launched Circus Harmony in St. Louis.
Due to the pandemic, the organization currently only has funding to keep its teaching artists on staff through May. The nonprofit is accepting donations in the hopes of extending that timeline, especially given that the staff is unable to perform at its home base, the City Museum, for the foreseeable future.
Students of all ages can sign up for free circus arts classes through Circus Harmony’s Facebook page, where an updated list of courses are posted daily. Hentoff says students simply send a message to the page through Facebook Messenger to confirm their identity, and they are then sent a password to enter the video class of their choice.
Founded as a social circus, Circus Harmony seeks to have a larger impact on the community through its work performing and teaching circus arts. The organization works with more than 1,200 children a year across the metro area.
Hentoff knows that not every person or family has access to smart devices or the Internet, though, and so she’s been applying for grants to make sure their work can reach every child and adult who is passionate about working out at home and learning the circus arts.
“Not everybody has the same internet access,” Hentoff says. “I would say pretty much everybody has a smartphone, but there might be one for the whole family, so if mom goes to work, the kids can’t get onto classes, much less pay for classes. So we’re looking for funding to keep some of our programming going for kids who really can’t pay.”
Given that the threat of virus exposure may likely extend into June, Circus Harmony is transitioning its annual summer camp into an online program. The summer camp is designed for both adults and children and there will be a charge for the classes, but Hentoff is hopeful that aid from grants can make the camp available to children whose families aren’t in a position to pay right now.
Ensuring that all students can continue to participate in Circus Harmony is critical to Hentoff. Circus arts require a level of trust and a bond between performers as well as teachers and students, she says — and not just when you’re learning movements or skills that require a partner to execute. Those bonds are part of what made Hentoff fall in love with circus arts more than four decades ago, and forging new bonds with students is part of what keeps her going.
Hentoff is still in touch with her original circus family from college, and although they can’t reunite in person right now, they recently caught up on a Zoom call. That’s the kind of second family Hentoff wants for her students, as well, and why she’s devoted to keeping Circus Harmony running during these challenging times.
After all, she’s spent a lifetime learning to catch whatever is thrown her way.
“If you ask any of our students what they like about circus, they’ll say it’s the family,” Hentoff says. “It becomes their second family. And that’s another part of supporting each other physically, emotionally, mentally — you know, that’s just what you do when you’re in a family.”