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Exclusive: Aim High With The American Youth Circus Organization

Sydney Lanier Burke | PopWrapped Author

Sydney Lanier Burke

10/14/2015 4:36 pm
Exclusive: Aim High With The American Youth Circus Organization | Circus
Media Courtesy of Miranda Demarest

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to run away and join the circus, you may be surprised that it's not quite as farfetched - but just as exciting - as you might expect! The circus arts scene is growing around the world, and we had the opportunity to talk to Amy Cohen, the Executive Director of the American Youth Circus Organization, a national non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the participation of youth in circus arts and supporting circus educators. Amy is also the founder of Circus Culture, Ithaca, New York's very own circus school.

The AYCO was founded in 1998 by Kevin O’Keefe. O’Keefe was “a circus educator and performer who had a sense that there were other people like him who could join forces and serve as each others support network. He hosted a gathering where eight circus educators came together to talk shop and share stories and needs. The community has grown steadily to this day”. Amy recalls that the growth has been amazing; at their last gathering in 2014, there were over 275 circus educators in attendance!

The AYCO spent more than ten years with a very dedicated volunteer staff. In 2010, they were able to hire the first paid staff member, which at the time, was Amy as Operations Director. Over the next two years, Zoe Brookes, the volunteer Executive Director, mentored Amy into taking over her position.

I first met Amy in 2009 in London while we were both studying on US-UK Fulbright Grants. I was immediately fascinated in her research, and, if I had lived closer to her, I would have loved to have engaged in some of her circus playtime. Getting a more global understanding of circus culture was incredibly fruitful for Amy:

I understood that circus in Europe, and specifically in the UK, had a different flavor than in the US, which is why I sought out the Fulbright experience in the first place. There was a feeling that in the UK something special was going on - they were developing a circus culture that included youth, degree-granting institution, and performing companies. It was clear that they were looking to the very established circus communities in Europe - especially in France and Germany -- and not only seeking to find their own voice but also advocating for the resources to do so. The arts-finding climate in Europe is so much different than in the US, and I was curious to see how that impacted the development of an art form and, then, bring that back to the US. I left my Fulbright year with a renewed sense of interest in the way that the US makes things work - generally without funding. I went in feeling like we were really lacking in opportunities, due to not having arts funding for circus, but left understanding that, in the US, we get creative with ways to fund things and make them happen, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I also learned that the youth circus community in the US is incredibly strong and cohesive - something I had taken for granted before I went. Finally, I learned that there is absolutely beautiful, diverse, and exhilarating circus art being made, produced, and supported in Europe and the UK that the US has had little opportunity to see. Exposure to it will (and is slowly) evolve the art form here in the States.

Lots of people tend to think of the circus as all clowns and acrobatics. Those things are there, for sure, but it's so much more than that. Amy says her time abroad also made her "passionate about using the word 'circus' and not shying away from it to mask [their] work as dance or theater in order to fit into boxes." While she found her way into the circus through music and gymnastics - where she "loved the physical nature of it but not the competitive part" - she ended up at a circus camp near her home, and it changed her entire world. "As soon as I arrived I knew I had found my home planet! It was creative, physical, inclusive, diverse, and exciting. Circus became my family, culture, and community", she said.

That word 'community' comes up a lot when Amy talks about circus, and you can tell she really means it. When asked to boil the AYCO down to just a few words, she describes it as a "safe cohesive growing community". It's incredible to see what the kids involved are learning when they are, effectively, playing with each other - "trust, coordination, collaboration, accurate self assessment, safe touch, communication, physical literacy, creative confidence, humility, bravery, confidence... to name a few!"

You don't have to be in New York to take advantage of the AYCO. Every year, they produce a massive national event, alternating years between having it focused on children or educators, including "a large and dynamic contingent of college students and 20-something young professionals who work in circus who help us make it all happen". The date for next year's national event (for circus educators) will be announced soon on the American Circus Educators website. As for events elsewhere throughout the US:

We also have regional festivals every year wherever our members wish to host them -- this year we have ones coming up in Vermont at the New England Center for Circus Arts on October 3rd and, then, one in NYC produced by the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. Finally, we produce youth circus showcases that give young artists the opportunity to perform in professional settings.

If you or a kid in your life wants to get involved with the AYCO, you can find out more by following them on Twitter, checking out their Facebook pages for educators and for youth, or by connecting straight to their website

More than anything, always remember to believe that circus can change the world!

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