Subscribe for 99¢

Circus veteran Jessica Hentoff was looking to fill some extra time during her first year of college, never dreaming it would lead her to run away with the circus. “After getting my feet wet in circus classes, I was hooked,” said Hentoff, artistic and executive director of Circus Harmony. “I just wanted to be in a circus.”

Hentoff made her dream a reality with the creation of Circus Harmony, a nonprofit social circus organization that uses circus arts to motivate social change. Through the circus school inside of City Museum and other numerous outreach programs, the organization focuses on building character and expanding community for youth of all ages, cultures, abilities and economic backgrounds.

Since its inception in 2001, Circus Harmony has grown from 10 students to over 1,400 students and from presenting 40 shows a year, to over 500 shows a year. “Students experience an empowering moment when they step into the ring and stand in front of an audience with their head held up high and arms outstretched — it’s transformative,” Hentoff said.

How did you get involved in the circus?

I started with circus classes during my freshman year of college and fell in love with it. The following summer, I worked for a Methodist Youth Circus. It was ‘social circus’ before the term had even been coined. I worked there a couple of summers before I formed a three-woman juggling, fire-eating, clowning troupe.

A year later, I was part of the new troupe of performers that started Big Apple Circus in New York. Years later, I joined Circus Flora. I’m the only person who is a founding member of both Big Apple Circus in New York and Circus Flora in St. Louis; two beautiful, romantic, one ring, European-style theatrical circuses. In circus terms — I was one of the first people to perform with them — to create the very first shows.

What did you love most about performing?

Performing a trick that no one else in the world has done! My partner and I at the time, Kathie Hoyer, performed as Hentoff & Hoyer, and we did a trick that was called the ‘Heel-to-Heel Hang.’ Our Russian coaches in New York created the trick for us to perform. I would hang by one arm from the trapeze, with my heels hooked around a large silver ring. Hoyer would hang upside down from the ring. As the act would climax, each of us would remove one foot. My single heel was suspending her by her single heel. It was incredible to perform!

How did Circus Harmony get its start?

I was working for Circus Flora and training their performance troupe, the St. Louis Arches. They are an elite performance troupe with the highest skill level and biggest commitment. When Circus Flora dropped their education program, I created Circus Harmony in order to continue to fund the Arches, and to expand circus education opportunities. Circus Harmony is the umbrella and St. Louis Arches is the performance troupe.

What’s the mission of Circus Harmony?

At Circus Harmony, we teach the art of life through circus education. While the kids are learning to flip and fly, they are learning important life skills like focus, persistence, teamwork and building character. As children progress through each class, we see their confidence, empathy, resilience and problem-solving abilities continue to grow stronger. These are all critical skills kids need to handle any challenge before them, whether in school or in life.

How do kids learn about your organization?

Organically. When we teach classes at one of the schools, many times the kids have a desire to continue with more circus training and they come downtown for classes. Eventually, we end up with this big group of circus kids from all over. When they meet each other for the first time, they don’t ask what neighborhood they are from or what school they attend. They will ask, ‘Do you juggle?’ ‘I like to tumble, what do you like to do?’ It’s so refreshing!

People also see us perform at City Museum, and they are intrigued after watching the kids perform advanced tricks. We also teach classes at City Museum and summer camps.

I also have social workers who have a child who is struggling in the classroom, but shows athletic potential. If we see or hear of a very talented child — and by talented, I mean both with attitude and aptitude, we certainly hope they will try our circus where they are valued and learn what people appreciate about them.

How do you rank in comparison to other after-school programs?

Circus Harmony was asked to participate in a nationwide study by the American Youth Circus Organization. The study was conducted by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Effectiveness and confirmed our circus arts programs have a positive impact on the social and emotional learning (SEL) of at-risk youth. The study was conducted over nine months with eight participating organizations. Our program delivered results that were as good as or better than the highest rated after-school program in America.

Can you share any success stories?

Two of my students that grew up in some of the worst neighborhoods in St. Louis are performing with Cirque du Soleil.

One of the very first Arches is a teacher at Ames Elementary in the city, just blocks from where I found her at Jefferson Elementary. We currently teach classes at Jefferson Elementary. Another woman who was also one of the first Arches serves on our board of directors; she’s an accountant for the city of St. Louis.

One of my students married into the Wallenda family and she now walks wire as a Flying Wallenda. I love visiting ‘my kids’ in their work environment or watching them perform professionally.

What is the best part of your job?

I love the moment when it clicks for someone. For instance, the first time they get a juggling pattern down or the first time they pull themselves up in the trapeze, and they realize they are defying gravity.

What do you want audience members to walk away with?

I want them to know young people are amazing! Many people don’t think very highly of today’s youth, especially youth from certain neighborhoods. We shouldn’t make assumptions and place cultural barriers between us.

Our program not only provides hope to kids because they realize how powerful they are, but also brings hope to the audience when they see what these young people are capable of. Our students are accomplished, focused and hardworking.

Advancing St. Louis highlights local leaders of small businesses and large corporations that are impacting the St. Louis region from a variety of industries. These leaders are Advancing St. Louis by inspiring change and starting conversations. Are you interested in having your story told? Contact Jennifer Mason, who coordinates marketing content, at jmason@stltoday.com.