A Circus in Harmony

Who wouldn’t want some superhuman ability? To fly through the air, defy gravity, speak to animals. Jessica Hentoff wonders why anyone wouldn’t want to join the circus, where you can achieve real-life superhuman strength in an environment with the power to connect the human spirit. “There’s a place for everyone in the circus, and at Circus Harmony, a focus on what connects us rather than divides us,” she says.
The Artistic/Executive Director and Founder of Circus Harmony has spent the last 40 years of her life performing and teaching “the quintessential art form,” as she describes it. After studying the circus arts in college, Hentoff returned to one of her teachers to ask how she could repay him for opening the door. His reply was a laconic, “Pass it on.” The request has never left her. Traveling with a youth circus that pulled performers from across the country and brought shows to people without access – senior homes, mental institutions and such – Hentoff saw the walls come down, the relationships develop and knew she’d found her calling.

In 2001, Hentoff started Circus Harmony, St. Louis’s only complete circus school and social circus. “First and foremost, it’s about effecting social change by building character in individuals and bridges between communities,” she says. Today, more than 1,300 students per year participate in various classes and programs at Circus Harmony, which presents over 500 shows annually at the City Museum and elsewhere. Everyone is welcome: from all sizes, ages (the oldest student is 93) and races, and across the ability and income spectrum (more than 60% of the population served is from low-income families).

“Here is where children can be creative, be themselves – where the class clown is encouraged – and where they learn about trust, teamwork and respect,” says Hentoff. “My primary message to every student is that what matters most is what you bring to the ring, and we can all find ways to lift each other up.”

While audiences are mystified by the incredible acts on display, Hentoff is more thrilled by the bonds that form between the students. She shares the example of a student during summer camp that was paired with another boy missing both legs. “He’s already inquired if his partner will be back this year as he wants to be paired up again. They worked so well together.”
And Hentoff assures that what they are doing is work. Hard work. But the rewards have been rich. Partnerships have been formed through Circus Harmony’s Peace through Pyramids cultural exchange program in Israel, Puerto Rico and at home in Ferguson. Among its many honors, the organization was awarded the YouthBridge Social Enterprise and Innovation Competition grant at Washington University, and in 2018, won the Missouri Arts Award for Art Education.

Without an exact number at hand, Hentoff says several students have gone on to perform professionally. One, who grew up in the Walnut Park neighborhood of North St. Louis, was accepted into the prestigious National Circus School in Montreal and now tours with Cirque du Soleil. He was recently featured in the PBS American Experience special, “The Acrobat.” Hentoff says he regularly comes back to teach other kids.

“Not all of our students will go on to make circus a career, but for the time they are in the program, they will learn how special and worthy they are, and I hope, will pass it on.”