Circus Kids From Puerto Rico And St. Louis Build Bridges Between Cultures | St. Louis Public Radio

Circus Kids From Puerto Rico And St. Louis Build Bridges Between Cultures

Jul 10, 2019

St. Louis circus kids are doing handsprings this week over a reunion with friends from Puerto Rico.

Last summer, nine kids from St. Louis’ Circus Harmony visited Puerto Rico to practice and perform with the young jugglers and acrobats of Escuela Nacional de Circo de Puerto Rico.

A dozen Puerto Rican teenagers are in St. Louis this week, reconnecting with St. Louis friends while performing together at the Jewish Community Center, Ballpark Village and other venues.

Building relationships is essential to feats like forming a pyramid, in which the kids rely on each other’s bodies for support, Circus Harmony founder Jessica Hentoff said.

“This is all about trust and responsibility,” Hentoff said. “And you need both.”

‘We Just Click’

Circus Harmony and Escuela Nacional de Circo de Puerto Rico teach kids juggling and trapeze as well as acrobatic feats.
Credit Provided | Jessica Hentoff

Both the local and Puerto Rican circus organizations teach kids acrobatics, juggling and life skills like perseverance and teamwork. They’re part of a worldwide network of social circuses, organizations that use circus arts to foster the development of children and communities.

Circus Harmony includes an international outreach program called Peace Through Pyramids. It took the St. Louis kids to Puerto Rico last summer, less than a year after Hurricane Maria tore through the U.S. territory, devastating much of the island. 

“That’s part of what we teach, is that you have to take care of each other,” Hentoff said.

In Puerto Rico, the St. Louis kids saw firsthand the hurricane’s devastation and its impact on residents. Some of the island’s circus kids lost their homes. 

Arianna Ruiz, 15, who lives with her family in the town of Dorado, near San Juan, lived without electricity and running water for several months. Being with the St. Louis kids last summer was a bright spot. Even after a year apart, they picked up right where they left off.

“We just click and start conversations and kind of like, ‘Oh, well, I learned this new trick, and I learned how to do that, and c’mon, teach me how to do this,’” Ruiz said.

Focus on Connections

The St. Louis and Puerto Rican circus kids spent part of their first day in St. Louis together rehearsing at the City Museum. This trick is called the Carousel.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

Some of the Puerto Rican kids only speak Spanish, and most of the St. Louis performers are strictly English speakers.

But regardless of language differences, the partnership with the St. Louis circus is a bonding experience, said Jafet Irizarry, artistic director of the Puerto Rican circus.


“It creates for them a sense of family,” Irizarry said. “It helps them have strength, because it’s a place where they can show their sensibilities and to show their strength to help themselves and to help others.”

Sarah Kuhlman of Ladue, who was among those who went to Puerto Rico, was excited to catch up with the friends she made last year. But the 15-year-old also connected right away with some of the visiting Puerto Ricans she hadn’t already met.

“Today, we were doing a trick called ‘Carousel,’ and I didn’t really know my base’s name yet,” Kuhlman said. “I was getting on his shoulders and it was so nice … and he let me down so softly and I knew, ‘OK, I can trust him.’”

That kind of relationship-building takes place in and out of the circus ring, Hentoff said.

“When we were in Puerto Rico, somebody turned on the radio and I turned around, and my kids are dancing, and they’re learning salsa from the Puerto Rican kids,” Hentoff said. “Because when you focus on what connects you, you find the other stuff is really minor; the language thing is actually kind of minor.”

St. Louis circus kids had the chance to work on their salsa moves with Puerto Rican circus kids at the City Museum this week.
Credit Provided | Jessica Hentoff

If you go:

Circus Harmony Revolution for Harmony Tour Muny Performance

7 p.m., Wednesday, July 10

Muny grounds in Forest Park

More performances at other venues through Sunday, July 14


Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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