Diverse Perspectives

What does the word diversity mean? And what does it have to do with circus? It turns out that both of these questions have multiple answers depending on who you ask! Here I have collected three examples of such diversity in the circus arts, one that explores diversity of the human body and how each individual is unique, one that focuses on the diversity of culture and background, and a last one which uses the profits of circus performances to address issues of diversity and acceptance.


Diverse City (http://www.diversecity.org.uk/)

diverse city

This organization, from the UK, unites deaf, disabled, and non-disabled circus artists to perform together. In their show “Extraordinary Bodies”, the artists amaze their audience as they overcome barriers caused by their disabilities by working together. Furthermore, this organization provides training in the circus arts, especially to those that are challenged by a disability. Diverse City also holds workshops to teach leaders and managers of companies to be more aware of how they operate and how they could develop or foster a diverse environment.


Bibi and Bichu (https://www.bibiandbichu.com/)

bibi and bichu

Bibi and Bichu, two Ethiopian brothers, address diversity in the circus arts by looking at their background and the stories that shaped them. Since they were young, both had dreams to become circus performers one day, despite the lack of a circus tradition in Ethiopia. Through their performance of Circus Abyssinia, they tell their story – how they dreamed, and how they succeeded. Aware of the lack of a circus culture in Ethiopia, the two brothers now sponsor a circus school in the country, Circus Wingate, and regularly hold workshops to spread the arts of circus to the next generation.


Circus Oz (http://www.circusoz.com/)

circus oz

This organization approaches diversity at yet another angle, using multiple circus-related events and opportunities as fundraisers to address social issues. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Circus Oz offers circus classes and performances to involve their community. Although some show content addresses social issues, most of their social activism is done through the money they raise, which is used to fund women’s refuges, welfare agencies, homeless shelters, victims of domestic violence, families living on housing commission estates, the Red Cross, the Royal Children’s Hospital, and Anglicare Kids in Crisis. Funds raised are also used for organizing and holding workshops at detention centres and helping refugees and asylum seekers.

For sure, there are many, many more circus organizations which reflect diversity. Diversity cannot be pinned to one definition. Neither can circus, an art that involves creativity and a divergence from the norm. Perhaps this is why they fit together so well! How does circus reflect diversity in your life?

– Anna





Grace reading this speech at the Smithsonian Folklike Festival 2017

When I was little I tried every sport.  Ballet, soccer, swimming, sailing, track.  All of them.  Nothing really challenged me.

Then I stumbled across the circus.  I fell in love with the music, the lights…and of course the applause.  I became obsessed with the spinning rope act.  I was so obsessed with the act that I trained and trained everyday doing pull ups, leg lifts and rope climbs.  I trained until my hands were red and calloused, my legs bruised and the back of my knees raw.  I trained for a year, until finally, I got to star in the act.  The feeling was magical, I’ve been in the spinning rope act every year since.

Two years ago I became a Ringmistress.  Between the demanding physical challenges and regularly speaking publicly in front of thousands upon thousands of people, circus has made me into the person who is unafraid of anyone or anything.  At the age of 16, I am ready to take on the world.  I am confident.  I am strong.  I am me. And I have dreams.  Dreams of spinning on the rope under the big top, dreams filled with the applause and adoration and amazement of audiences.

But America’s largest circus has just closed its doors.  What does that mean for the future of the circus?  What does that mean for MY future in circus?

Circus is forever.  Audiences change.  The world changes.  Circus adapts. In a world where our experiences are electronic, our friends are on social media and games are on screens instead of backyards, we need a more intimate kind of circus.  One that offers realness.  Where you can see artists muscles strain and their foreheads drip with sweat.  One that offers real people doing incredible things.  Just a few feet away.

That is me.  That is us.  We are the future of circus.  We are Sailor Circus.

– Grace, age 16, from Sailor Circus (Sarasota, FL)

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

From late June to early July of this year, the nation’s capital celebrated circus. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage annually transforms the National Mall in Washington, D. C. for its Folklife Festival. The Festival’s themes in past years have ranged from Basque to Hungarian Heritage to Kenyan and Chinese Culture. This year, the circus community had the opportunity to showcase their unique history and artistry for the Festival’s fiftieth anniversary.

With representation from 22 circuses, attractions included flying trapeze shows, foot-juggling, and countless clown skits. In addition to a variety of performances, the festival featured other programs: circus cooking, science, and stories. As I meandered through the festival, I was greeted by jugglers from Circus Harmony, trampoline artists twisting through the air, and stories of how circus has forever altered performers’ lives.

I was struck by the magnitude of the festival. A blend of traditional ring and contemporary performances yielded a unique circus culture conducive to growth. In the midst of  movements for social circus, birth of new circus programs, and questions regarding new means of unifying the circus community, performers came together to celebrate the complexity and beauty of circus. The Festival certainly reflected the spreading passion for circus, which was my primary takeaway from the event.

– Emily

Carlo Pellegrini, Circus Coach

While growing up as a circus kid, many look to their coaches not only for advancing their skills and getting advice about their acts, but also learning about life. Carlo Pellegrini is one of my circus coaches, and he has many bits of advice as a coach, a businessman, and as a professional clown and ringmaster.

Carlo was first exposed to circus when he was six years old and had a recurring dream that he was a juggler in the 12th century, entertaining people as they traveled down a road. When he was about nine, he would stay up past his bedtime peering through a crack in his door to watch The Ed Sullivan Show and memorize the acrobat and juggling routines. He would practice these routines extensively in his backyard. Carlo failed a lot, but kept at it every week.

The first piece of advice from Carlo is to keep practicing. If you want to get really good, one hour per week will not be enough. Ten hours a week is a good start. Even though you fail, you must keep practicing.

Later in his life, Carlo was in college striving to be the accounting major that his father wanted him to be, but as Carlo dabbled in acting and philosophy classes he learned 1) that he was terrible at math, and 2) that he really wanted to be a dancer and join a circus.

At his Catholic college, Carlo met a Jesuit priest, Nick Weber, who had his own one-man circus show, The Royal Lichtenstein ¼-Ring Sidewalk Circus. Later, after rejecting the advice of his father to major in accounting, his father said he should at least pursue a legitimate theater career. That’s when Carlo “ran away to join the circus.” He joined the first national touring company of The Royal Lichtenstein Circus. At this point, he regrets he didn’t give his father’s advice more credence, but life is funny: he did have to learn how to use accounting as a producer and executive director of circuses. Proving the point that in the circus you have to learn to do everything!

Carlo’s second piece of advice is to follow your dream, and make it into something with which you can support yourself. Even though he didn’t finish college, he balances his “follow your dream” advice with this advice: complete your college degree. Of course, circus arts learning improves a student’s ability to succeed academically, so completing a degree should easy.

Years later, after having moved on to performing with the Nikolais Dance Company and working in TV commercials, Carlo met a man on a New York City subway who was carrying a trapeze over his shoulder. Carlo asked this circus-stranger where he was working and received an invite to come to Battery Park City to check out the Big Apple Circus. Carlo sought a job there, and was offered the position of Ringmaster. Later, the owner asked him to perform as a clown. During his season with the Big Apple Circus, Carlo was always working on perfecting his skills. Between shows, he knew he had access to world-class performers, and he asked them to teach him more acrobatics as well as the trapeze.

Carlo’s third piece of advice is to learn everything you can. Part of that general advice is that Carlo believes an aspiring circus performer should master a ground skill and an aerial skill, and that an aspiring circus coach should be able to teach the basics of every circus skill.

Carlo realized he couldn’t support his family on the then seasonal business of the Big Apple Circus, and so he took a job in advertising. Circus was never far from his day-to-day work however, and he taught all his clients how to juggle. Ultimately, he developed a motivational speaking program based on juggling called ‘The Juggling MATRIX’!

While working as a motivational speaker, Carlo led his church’s youth programs. As a result of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, many families in his hometown of Nyack, New York, had been personally affected by losses of loved ones. During counseling sessions with his teen youth group, they asked Carlo to help them put together a fundraising circus show for their community. The teens named it after their church, and called themselves THE AMAZING GRACE CIRCUS!

Carlo and his AGC co-founder Janet Hayes agreed to help them put together a show. After the show, the kids wanted to continue to work and perform together and the AGC! Teen Troupe was born. Today AGC! runs circus arts programs in schools with their signature family fun night fundraisers and community events. Over the past 15 years they have performed for and trained over 70,000 children and teens.

Carlo has always worked with students with a wide range of abilities and personalities. He studies constantly, reading books and attending educational seminars on human behavior and child development. Fundamental to his work is understanding how people learn to learn. Carlo says that he can study a kid for a few minutes and determine his/her learning style. He has learned what approach works with different learning styles. Carlo classifies learners into the following categories: action-oriented learners, analytically-oriented learners, adaptive-oriented learners, and intuitive/creatively‐oriented learners.

Click here to see The AGC Pedagogical Model!

I asked Carlo what he hopes for in the students he teaches. He responded that he hopes his circus students 1) are hungry to learn; 2) are open to learning a full breadth of skills; 3) are willing to put in the time to learn; 4) have a sense of humor, understanding that the basis of circus is improv and Vaudeville; and 5) look at their coaches as a source of extensive experience for students to tap and a resource for contacts and networking.

I also asked Carlo his favorite part of being a coach. He responded that he loves “seeing students get the look of understanding in their eyes.” He loves to see that “look of understanding translated to their bodies in a trick, routine or piece.” He is fulfilled knowing he has “gotten through and now they have a bridge of communication.” His goal is student independence, but for them to always have “an island of security to come back to – to the circus.”

Click here to see Carlo’s Circus Philosophy!

Carlo has been a great coach to me. In addition to teaching me skills and providing me performing opportunities through AGC!, he offers constant encouragement. He helps me balance my passion for circus with a rigorous high school academic schedule. He has provided me leadership opportunities helping to choreograph for the junior troupe and guiding new Teen Troupe members through their first performance. Carlo and AGC! have provided me many opportunities to give back to our community through performing at events like the YMCA Family Fair and volunteering at the AGC! summer camp. Like Carlo, I love to see the excited look in a child’s eyes when he/she accomplishes a new skill!

– Allie


INTERVIEW: Brian Foley, Clown Extraordinaire

In character

What do you love about being a clown?
The joy it brings me and others, the freedom it offers me and inspires in others.What is your clown name?  How did you choose it?
I have performed as various characters–some named Otto or Bouk, but mostly, I believe clown is about telling the truth. So, I’m Brian.

Do you take on a different persona when you clown? 
My characters like Otto are based on other people, but when I’m really clowning purely, I’m just being honest about my strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and sense of humor. So I exaggerate things about me, but it’s all me.
Where did you get your circus education? 
I had a wonderful clown teacher in college named Stephen Ringold. He taught me much about pure clown and how difficult it is to find in oneself. Then I worked with many teachers like Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley, Barry Lubin, Larry Pisoni, and many, many others. My peers and colleagues also taught me much as I was fortunate enough to work beside them on many jobs.
How do you come up with your routine?
Honest answer–I find a toy and I play with it. Then when I have some ideas, I find a piece of music and add that in. Then I perform it in front of an audience for a while, and make lots of mistakes. I come back home and think about the mistakes and why it’s not working. I then look for the most truthful answer. The key to unlocking the routine is usually in there. I also ask myself the questions I would ask my student–what is my character’s relationship to the audience?, etc.
What do you do when people are afraid of clowns?
When it is children, usually they’re not afraid of me. But I would give them space or let them decide that they like me. When it’s adults, I educate them. Clown is a verb. I can clown in any article of clothing or without makeup. If you’re scared of makeup, you’re not scared of clowns. You’re scared of makeup. That’s different.
How can someone go from being interested in clowning to being where you are?
Well, my path began in the theatre. I had a good solid foundation in dance, music, acting, and more. I can control my body, am comfortable onstage, and had some skills to begin with.  Then I made a point to seek out good teachers, and study with them. I practiced very hard, auditioned for theme parks and cruise ships and other performance jobs where I could improve my circus skills, and then I began developing my own material–both solo and with a partner. After proving myself as a performer with potential to my teachers (who were also well-connected in the markets I wanted to break into) they began recommending me for work. And because I worked hard to do a good job, I rose up the ranks.
– Cailey

Out of character


As a circus student, sometimes I forget how much it costs to keep a gym open. But the reality is that circus is expensive, and it takes the whole community to raise money through grants, auctions and fundraisers so that we can keep our circuses afloat. There are about a thousand different ways to fundraise, but in this article I wanted to focus on one fundraising option that was fun, raised money, and brought my community together.

So I interviewed Wendy Cohen, the Educational Director at the Echo Theater Company in Portland, Oregon. Wendy has been a community member of Echo Theater, performing, teaching, and working in the echos office, since 1996. The Echo Theater is a nonprofit, and is always looking for creative fundraisers to raise money, and Wendy was a massive help to Echo in creating the FUNathon fundraiser that took place about 6 months ago.

The FUNathon was a one night fundraising event that took place inside the Echo Theater Company’s space. The night included, acts, pledges, concessions, jokes, poetry and puppets. Wendy described the event as being, “the circus version of a jogathon” saying that, “People could find a fun thing to do either repetitively in a short time or something that they could sustain. Then family members would pledge money for how long or how many a participant could do. The idea was to get pledges from family members and the community in a way that would be fun to watch.”

When I asked Wendy what she thought made the FUNathon a successful event she kept coming back to the idea that it was fun, silly and completely inclusive to all members of the Echo community. She told me, “It made people curious! There was definitely an element of, What is that? The event really brought the community together from all levels, whether or not you were taking a class at Echo.” It was clear to Wendy that what made a difference in this fundraiser was the inclusion of all generations. When I asked Wendy about the importance of including parents and relatives in fundraising she said that, “It’s really important, We need an audience and they are the audience. they want to support the kids who are working, and we wouldn’t be here without them.” Another great part of the FUNathon was the message it sent to both kids and adults, as Wendy said, “it showed that people with any age, body or ability could do circus, and it really gave those who had not been exposed before a chance to understand what circus is.” The FUNathon did a great job of capturing Echo’s mission to its community, “ To create unique, professional performances and classes aimed at bridging generational and cultural gaps while celebrating the collective potential of all people.”

Altogether the FUNathon raised about 6,000 dollars for the Echo Theater Company, and there are plans to do another event like it next year. Wendy, and everyone else at the ETC, hopes that it is just as successful if not more. Clearly fundraising works best when you can get everyone in your community in on the fun, and get every single member invested in the time and money it takes to make circus work.

– Zoe

You can find the Echo Theater Company at www.echotheaterpdx.org

A Brief Explanation of Circus Through The Ages

In the history of the circus lies both a community for all unordinary and extraordinary peoples and sense of adventure in its lifestyle. From its origins and creators to its classic demonstrations of the unusual, circus is many things.

The circus most people know today are often considered a child’s dreamland, presented through choreographed routines of acrobatics, tamed animals, peculiar human abilities, and other fascinating phenomena. Most people are familiar and fond of the classic Western circus, with its usual variety of treats – circus peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy – and tricks – puzzling illusions and humorous acts.

Maybe you’ve wondered about the origin of this traditional circus. Historians and those of more curious mindsets have accepted the likelihood of where, when, and how the modern circus originated: In 1768, London, England, circus showman Phillip Astley first introduced the circus, which spread across the world like wildfire. In the acts of his show, Astley presented lots of the circus elements known to us today – performing exotic animals, acrobatics, et cetera. Obviously a lot of Astley’s original acts are now what make up the modern circus.

Most circuses throughout the past estimated 200 years are known for traveling, popping up gleaming, colorful lights and enormous canvas tents in hours to prepare for shows. The exciting news of “The circus has come to town!” and the swarming crowds of happy locals always meant the same. However, circuses didn’t usually travel until it became much more convenient.

Before the mid-1820s, most circuses performed their shows in temporary wooden structures or more permanent amphitheaters, making circus travel a bit more complicated. Then, in 1825, a circus enterpriser named Joshua Purdy Brown was the first to use a tent, fashioned from weatherproof canvas, as the temporary home of a circus, and the clever idea took off throughout circuses all over the globe.

Another loved and well-known act from many, many circuses throughout the years is the display, as if in a museum, of both animal and human oddities and extraordinary abilities. This was brought to life and fame by a Phineas Taylor Barnum along with his accomplice, William Cameron Coup, in 1871. They created what they called Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus. The “museum” portion of their show was basically an exhibition, of humans and animals with odd abilities, like in a museum (hence the name.) These people often included the classics of the bearded woman, little people (referred to at this time as “midgets,”) strongmen, and contortionists, along with many other people with stranger abilities or traits.

Most of these people almost displayed in some circuses were more than just acts or performers. Hundreds of people still consider their circuses to be like family or like a community when they have trouble finding such in the outer world. Throughout its history circus has had a huge positive impact on the lives of some at the margins of society with a sense of security, family, and a place to belong.

As you now know, throughout history, people have been demonstrating and inventing new brilliant ideas and utilities to aid in the spectacular performance of the modern classic circus. And the circus has been offering a family to the people who have needed it most. The show people love so dearly shows an art and a special amount of hard work that is put in to perform, prepare, and end the show in thrown roses and a wave of laughter, and sometimes even awe.

– Mazie Jane