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St. Louis teens tumble for understanding of other cultures

St. Louis teens tumble for understanding of other cultures

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ST. LOUIS   Some nonprofit organizations say they operate on a shoestring, but staff at Circus Harmony believes it operates on the aglet — the tiny plastic tube on the end of a shoestring.

For a nonprofit that serves more than 1,400 children a year, Circus Harmony‘s budget sits at under half a million dollars, according to Jessica Hentoff, artistic executive director and founder of Circus Harmony.

“We do a lot with a little,” Hentoff said.

Among its accomplishments, Circus Harmony staff teach circus arts classes with an emphasis on peer mentoring, primarily to low-income students, at City Museum and outreach locations around the St. Louis area.

Circus Harmony officially became a nonprofit in 2001. It is St. Louis’ only social circus organization — meaning staff use the teaching and performing of circus arts to motivate social change.

“We work on building character in individuals and building bridges between communities,” Hentoff said.

Since 2007, Circus Harmony’s “Peace Through Pyramids” program has been working to unite children from different backgrounds through a common appreciation for the circus, Hentoff said.

“What these Peace Through Pyramids partnerships do is they teach these young people to focus on what connects them instead of what divides them,” Hentoff said. “They find they can create something really amazing.”

During its first 10 years, Peace Through Pyramids partnered with a Jewish and Arabic social circus organization in Israel. Every other year, Circus Harmony students went to Israel to perform with a circus troupe there.

This year, Circus Harmony’s elite group of nine acrobats — the St. Louis Arches — is heading to Puerto Rico.

Hentoff decided on a partnership there after donating to the social circus for the National School of Circus of Puerto Rico in Dorado after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island.

“They were devastated and suggested we come down there,” Hentoff said.

The Arches will work with the Puerto Rican troupe to create and perform a show, Hentoff said.

“We’re going to tour around Puerto Rico to the places that most need the joy, the inspiration, the triumph … the feeling you get from watching a circus,” Hentoff said.

Despite potential language barriers, Hentoff said, circus is something that everyone can understand.

“Circus is an international language,” she said.

Extraordinary performers

Hentoff does not believe in labels, especially for her students.

“The point is you come here, and you throw off your label, whether it’s your race, or neighborhood or school label,” she said. “You step in the ring and you say, ‘I’m a juggler, I’m an acrobat.’ ”

When Oliver Layher, 17, enters the ring, he labels himself an acrobat.

He got his start at Circus Harmony when he was about 9. His school didn’t have a physical education class, so he came to the third floor of City Museum for class. He never left.

“I’ve done other things along with (circus), but I’ve never stopped,” he said.

Next year, he plans to audition for École Nationale de Cirque — the National Circus School — in Montreal.

He is like many others in the Arches who want to become professional performers, Hentoff said.

And while the Arches may look like ordinary children, Hentoff said, they are extraordinary performers.

Being in the St. Louis Arches is a lot like being in an elite sport. These acrobats practice Monday through Friday during the summer and do shows almost every day. They train year-round to perfect their acrobatic, dancing and acting skills.

They can juggle, ride a unicycle and walk a wire, Hentoff said of the Arches. “You have to be able to do everything.”

Though Malik Leeks, 13, can do everything, he mostly likes to do acrobatics. He is among the nine Arches members heading to Puerto Rico in July.

Malik is excited to work with his peers, create a compelling act to perform in Puerto Rico, and show off the hard work that went into creating it.

“I’m excited to work with other children,” Malik said. “When it’s time to work with each other, we can work with each other.”

Oliver is ready to meet people from another country.

“I like different cultures,” he said. “It’ll be cool to meet people who have different experiences from mine.”

Finn McNamee, 13, wants to make new friends while he is in Puerto Rico.

“It will be good being able to connect with people who don’t live in the same environment as us,” Finn said.

“The work we’re going to be doing with those kids is so exciting,” Hentoff said.

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