Feature Article Vol. VII, No. 5

St. Louis’ Circus Harmony and Circo Nacional de Puerto Rico Join Forces in Cultural Exchange

By Sophie Hurwitz

The Social Circus movement–a group of youth circuses around the world that hope to use circus as a way to help students develop social skills, and as a way to help alleviate social ills–is founded on the belief that circus can bring real, tangible good to the places and people that most need joy and wonder. The Revolution Circus social circus tour, which was a collaboration between Puerto Rican and Missourian youth circus performers, who traversed the island of Puerto Rico bringing free circuses to the towns still recovering from Hurricane Maria, proved how circus can do good.

“So the thing is, when people hear circus, they think it’s light and fluffy, like cotton candy,” said coach Jessica Hentoff of Circus Harmony St. Louis, one of the two groups that formed Revolution for Harmony. “And they hear kids, and they think it’s just a bunch of kids doing cartwheels. And they don’t realize the depth and impact of the work on the individual children, on the audiences, and also the level of what they’re going to see. It’s much more dense than cotton candy, and certainly a lot higher-level than cartwheels.”

Circus Harmony first connected with the other half of Revolution for Harmony Circus–the National Circus School of Puerto Rico–after they experienced a disaster so great they weren’t sure their circus was going to survive. The National Circus School operates out of a big top in the backyard of a suburban house in Dorado, Puerto Rico. Standing in stark contrast to the houses, businesses and gas station that surround it, the red-and-yellow tent is the home to about 40 students. Some of them are “circus therapy” students, while others are social circus students, who have been identified as at-risk and are there to work on social skills. Others are simply there to take circus, but all mingle freely, and all of them just see it as their circus class.

“Circus is always therapeutic,” said Leslynette Ramos, the resident psychologist at el Circo Nacional de Puerto Rico. “And what’s happening here is that we have some specific groups, where neurotypical children and children who have special needs mix together. Normally we don’t put them in separate groups. What we do in this group is, for those with special needs, we make a therapy plan, using the circus as a medium to work with them. Each child is different, but basically, we have some general objectives that we work with. For kids with autism, for example, the class develops their socialization skills, waiting for their turn, managing their emotions, developing their motor skills, working on sensory issues. They go to the same classes as others, they just might get a little more assistance. They all know this is psychotherapy, but for them, they’re just going to their circus class. Circus is what they want to do.”

However, when Hurricane Maria came in September 2017, the circus was devastated. The coaches wondered if they’d ever even be able to reopen. It took them until January to get their tent back up and get their electricity back–and that’s where Circus Harmony came in. Jessica Hentoff saw the Dorado circus’ plea for help on Facebook, and donated some money to help get their tent back up.

Then, she realized she could do something better, both for her own students and for the Puerto Rican circus students–she could send her own circus group to Puerto Rico to collaborate with them, facilitating healing and intercultural connection. So, this past July, 9 students from the St. Louis Arches–the elite performing group within Circus Harmony–travelled to Puerto Rico to join forces with 10 students from el Circo Nacional de Puerto Rico, forming the collaborative performance group Revolution for Harmony Circus.

“Our goal is to bring happiness and new things to the communities that are still going through difficult times because of Hurricane Maria, and to help them forget their problems for a moment, enjoying our show,” said Coralys Vasquez, 17, of Dorado, Puerto Rico. Though the Puerto Rican circus performers themselves have gone through the trauma of Hurricane Maria–a few of their houses have not been fully rebuilt, almost a year later–they know that in the more rural towns, conditions are much worse. In the mountainous municipality of Adjuntas, for example, local nonprofit leaders estimate that 30% of the population still doesn’t have electricity. Revolution for Harmony Circus travelled to these towns to help lift people’s spirits after months upon months of darkness.

“The worst thing…is the emotional status of the people,” said coach Glorimar Sierra of el Circo Nacional de Puerto Rico. “There’s a lot of depression, and the suicide rate has gone up. After the hurricane, it’s gotten so hard to get a job, and a lot of people don’t have a way to feed themselves…that leads them to take this action. In Yabucoa, for example, there are a lot of older people that live alone, and they don’t have family, or their family isn’t here in Puerto Rico, and they become very depressed.”

Though almost none of the St. Louis Arches spoke Spanish, and most of the members of the National Circus School of Puerto Rico spoke limited English, they were able to use the ‘universal language’ of circus to bridge that gap, and to take their skills to heights they never thought possible.

“There are ways to communicate both verbally and nonverbally, but the common language is circus, and you have a common goal…to create a show, and when you’re on that path, the details like the exact words don’t matter that much,” Hentoff said. “Circus is so broad a language, and it’s so easy to say ‘like this’? You know, just by doing it. I mean, look at human babies. That’s how they learn.”

“Well, not everybody spoke perfect English, and everybody has different skill sets and technique, but we did it,” agreed Sarah Kuhlman of Circus Harmony.

For Ricardo Martinez Lopez of the National Circus School of Puerto Rico, the collaborative tour with the St. Louis Arches was an opportunity to learn new tricks and reignite his passion for circus.

““In the tour, one of the tricks that [the Arches] taught me and that I’ve seen so many times, and I’ve always dreamt of doing, was the hand-to-hand. I’ve never in a million years thought that I could’ve done it, in the level that I’m in,” Lopez said. But that didn’t stop him: “They said ‘you’re doing this,’ and I was like, ‘are you sure’? But I did it. It was just mind-blowing that I could get to that level, just with a little help from these guys.”

Now, the students of the National Circus School of Puerto Rico hope to come to St. Louis to continue their exchange of skills with Circus Harmony, and to further the mission of social connectedness and social justice that is at the heart of social circus. Though they have received a $5,000 donation from MLB baseball player Yadier Molina’s charitable foundation, they have a long way to go to make that a reality. The students, however, are confident that they will see each other again. And all of the students who had the opportunity to train under the Big Top in a backyard in Dorado are inspired to stay in the circus, and to keep spreading joy.

“I just love the environment, and what it makes you do as a person, and how it pushes you to be a better person,” said Ricardo Martinez Lopez. “Not just physically, because yeah, you’re working with your body, and you’re doing things that normally a human being would not do, but it also makes your mind stronger because you have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in your partners and in your group, and have that state of mind of, ‘I can do this, I can do whatever I want.’ And circus has taught me that.”

At the end of the show, all 19 performers come together into a human pyramid. One of the kids calls out “Uno! Dos!” and the second row of acrobats climb into the pyramid, supported from below by the others. To thunderous applause, the students all stand tall and hold each other up and smile.