A Compassionate Circus

Photo by Alex Bays

Photo by Alex Bays

By Sara Giza

Since May 2015, CirqueLouis has been bringing the beauty of the circus arts to our local community with breathtaking performances. Not resting on entertainment alone, they’ve spearheaded Louisville’s first social circus program: CirqueCompassion.

“CirqueCompassion was part of our initial plans for CirqueLouis,” says Executive Director Jessica Marquardt. “We knew we wanted to use our passions and talents to serve Louisville, and we immediately crafted a social outreach branch.” The team spent nearly a year doing research to ensure they were moving intentionally and in the right direction.

CirqueCompassion is one part of their outreach activities, which aim to serve the community by teaching circus arts in conjunction with physical, emotional and psychological development. To date, they’ve had a huge focus on bringing the arts to children who reside in the Portland neighborhood. They’ve hosted classes at LoveCity and the Shawnee Boys and Girls Club. They are currently in the process of setting up space in Louisville Visual Arts and are in communication with several schools to bring the programming to more spaces.

As CirqueCompassion grows, the team has seen an overwhelming amount of support. “I think when people first hear that we’re using circus arts to improve people’s lives, they’re not really sure what to think,” explains Marquardt. “But, when they see the program in action or hear that our goal includes measurable outcomes for each student, it starts to click for them. We’ve had a great response from our students because there is something in the circus for everyone.”

The classes often start out with simple skills such as plate spinning and trust building activities like acro-balancing. This fosters teamwork and a sense of community among the students. According to Marquardt, skills are generally selected based on how long the program will be running, who the students are and what the goals are for the students. Yet, students involved in most programs can look forward to learning basic ball juggling, diabolo, spinning plates, acro-balancing and basic poi.

“We always say that ‘circus is for everyone,’ so each program structure is a little different. Depending on the length of the program and who is in the class, we might also work on manipulation props, stilting, walking globe, rola bola and more,” Marquardt says, noting that the possibilities are endless. They also wrap up each class with a game that incorporates fitness, teamwork and minimal competition. The team believes strongly in community before competition.

For low income neighborhoods and populations, the program provides a unique experience free of charge. “If a program is held under our CirqueCompassion branch, the goal is for the program to be free for students,” explains Marquardt. “This means that either the school or organization pays for the programming, or we reach out and find grants to fill the funding.”

When it comes to the benefits of the circus arts for children, the possibilities are endless. “Circus arts feed physical growth, whether that be development of fine and gross motor skills or muscle growth. They improve emotional and social health by building community and confidence,” says Marquardt of just some of the benefits, adding that circus arts meet an individual where they already are, while providing both a healthy challenge and a sense of accomplishment. “I have had students who are incredible athletes and I have had students who were not athletic at all –and they both felt success and accomplishment, even when standing next to each other,” she says.

When she is not fulfilling her director duties or instructing, Marquardt is busy practicing and performing. For the past three years, she’s trained in the aerial arts and works with silks, aerial rope, static trapeze and aerial anchor. She also practices acro-balancing, fire arts and stilt walking. But her passion for serving others still shines.

“I saw how the circus shaped and changed my life and I want to share that sense of accomplishment with others. Even if they don’t latch on for the long run, I want to know that I’ve spread joy, challenge and satisfaction in each of my students.” VT

For more information, go to cirquelouis.com.