The Legend of the Great Spirits of Jugglingcraft

(If you’re suddenly very confused, it might help to read last week’s post first, after, or at some random point in the middle of this.)

Once upon a dark and stormy night, in a nearby land, a child cried out in boredom. This cry was followed shortly by another more terrible cry… the sound of the child’s parent. The powers of these cries echoed across the land, floated up the Potomac, swung from tree to tree into the misty mountains, and eventually but surely reached the quiet abode of

THE GREAT SPIRITS OF JUGGLINGCRAFT

Caught in the midst of a fierce debate over the exact weight of the perfect juggling ball, the Great Grandmama Spirit and Grandson Spirit of Jugglingcraft suddenly fell silent, heads turned to better catch the echoes.

Their hearts were moved at these pitiful sounds of boredom, frustration, Zoom meetings and idle hands wafting up from the region. With great dedication (and relief for Grandson who had been losing the argument), the two great spirits and their loyal pup set to work.

Each juggling set was meticulously assembled of the finest, upcycled, recycled and regularly printed materials. Each individual juggling ball’s contents was measured precisely with kitchen spoons, and the final product was inspected with a master’s eye, infused with the joy of learning new things, and neatly tucked into a patented plastic-juggling-ball-bundle with a nifty set of beginner-friendly, easy-to-understand instructions, and sealed with a beautiful sticker. Each bundle was a work of art; a masterpiece.

When all the juggling bundles were finished with love and packed into the handy dandy carrying case from their favorite circus organization, the Great Spirits of Jugglingcraft rested. Grandmama Spirit invited Grandson Spirit to sit with her on the seat in front of their wooded abode.

“Grandson,” she said to him in a quivering voice thousands of years old, “you have worked hard and become a great master of the ancient jugglingcraft. These are skills and techniques that have been passed down since the very beginning of the universe itself. I am growing older, and it is time that you inherit our ways. We have reached the end of an era. There are new styles that need to be invented, new kinds of juggling balls to make, new ways of juggling heretofore unknown.” She paused to catch her breath.

“I want you to come with me on this trip,” Grandmama Spirit said. “Let us journey together to the District of Columbia and its surrounding lands to bring these good people the joy of juggling.” At these words, Grandson Spirit leapt up, filled with joy and pride.

“I will try hard, and I won’t let you down!” he said.

And so, off they went.

Down the mountain slopes, navigated the great forest…

…passed over treacherous landscapes…

…and through strange and foreign spaces.

After a long and difficult journey, they arrived at their first destination: a place of thoughts, hopes and dreams. Carefully avoiding any passerbys, the pair of Spirits carefully placed one of the lovingly crafted juggling kits for a curious soul to find.

This was only the beginning though. They had a lot of work ahead of them, and a lot of distance to travel. There were many curious things in this world, and they tried their best to stay focused on the task at hand. Mostly.

Using a variety of stealthy transportation options, they soon arrived at the next of many, many, many Little Free Libraries– the best method for bringing the joy of juggling to all people of the DMV! With great secrecy, the Spirits secreted away this bundle of juggling goodness into the Little Free Library.

After this victory, they went on to hide bundles of juggling balls in Little Free Libraries all across the District, Maryland and Virginia (but not too far out, because they were traveling by scooter after all). From neighborhood to neighborhood, east to west to north to south, the Great Spirits of Jugglingcraft journeyed to bring the joy of juggling to the people of the District.

Grandson Spirit learned all the magical ways to travel, to bring a juggle bundle to even the most populated areas without being seen, and most importantly, to make sure his hand wasn’t caught in the door when Grandmama Spirit was in a rush.

After a long day, their work was finally done. The joy of juggling had been brought far and wide, and now that Grandson Spirit knew the way, he could continue to journey down the mountain and through the woods and take the S2 bus to deliver new juggling ball kits throughout the dark and cold DC winter to children and their parents. Because juggling is for everyone: old and young, thrill-seekers and patient perseverers, the easily bored and the hyperactive.

With an empty carrying sack and light hearts, the Grandmama and Grandson Spirits of Jugglingcraft made their way home, and celebrated with a well-earned relaxation.

They all lived happily ever after.

THE END.


And with that oddity,
dear friends, we’d like to bid you happy holidays,
a great Hanukah, merry Christmas, cheery Kwanza, delicious Ōmisoka,
and a brilliant New Year with Peace and Circus for all,

Christian & Lottie


Behind the Scenes Making of:
The Legend of the Great Spirits of Jugglingcraft

You can read more about the Free Juggling Ball Project in last week’s post. Special thanks to local artists, Pablo and Rodin, for their beautiful masks and embodying the Spirits of Jugglingcraft.

*Please note: The 5 members of the Jugglingcraft Project operated as an isolated “bubble” before and during the production of this project, so you won’t see any facemasks in these photos while we’re indoors. We bubbled to keep us safe and you safe while we assembled your juggling ball kits. While all kits did additionally sit for at least two weeks after assembly and before distribution, we recommend using alcohol to wipe down the surfaces before use. It’s always a good idea to make sure your equipment is clean, even in normal times.


Found a juggling ball in your nearby Little Free Library?

A mysterious thing is occurring across the city…

Juggling ball kits are appearing in Little Free Libraries! How can this be?

On an exceptionally rainy weekday evening earlier this fall, a clandestine operation was taking place in Takoma. The infamous Thom Wall, of Philadelphia’s Modern Vaudeville Press, ran across the street hugging a giant black trash bag nearly bursting with *dramatic music plays* empty plastic balls. He deposited the bag into the open trunk of a nondescript white vehicle, and ran back to gather an additional box of Supplementary Materials. Meanwhile, the owner of the nondescript white vehicle began to plot a secret route to acquire the valuable Ball Filling Supplies. Thus was the beginning of the Great DC Juggling Ball Project! *more dramatic music*

At least, it happened more or less like that.

As the Modern Vaudeville Press explains,

Thanks to an incredible donation from the Flea Theater in New York City, Modern Vaudeville Press has found itself in a unique position — we have supplies to make some 3,500 juggling balls using mostly upcycled materials. With this shell donation, we can make hundreds of juggling kits to give away at extremely low cost / free to community programs all along the East Coast.

And we just had to get involved. Who knows which of these lucky finders may become the world’s next famous juggler? We requested help from some local friends, and have so far assembled and distributed 50 free juggling kits for the joy and amusement of people of all ages across the DC area.

Who are those juggling-ball-assembling friends, you may ask? Why, the Great Spirits of Jugglingcraft, of course. Next week, you can follow their story as they made their magical visit down to DC.

And if you haven’t found a set yet, don’t worry.

Maybe the Spirits of Jugglingcraft will hear your plea, descending from their foresty mountain home to leave a kit sometime this winter….

Spirits of Jugglingcraft prepare juggling balls

TRICKS OF THE LIGHT: PART TWO

Circus Photographers Keep Art in Focus

The District Ringer recently spoke to Dani Pierce and Shamal Halmat, both of whom excel at keeping circus arts in the frame. Learn about their life experiences with photography in part one of this series.

In part two, we share Pierce and Halmat’s advice on how to raise your photography and videography game, including practical tips, online resources, and artists who have personally inspired their work.

Photo by Shamal Halmat, (c) Shamal Deare Creative, 2019.

Pro Tips from Circus Photographers

SHAMAL HALMAT

  • Think about the story you want to tell. That’s the point of all art, photography and circus — to actually revolve around good storytelling.
  • Fire spinners: Slow down! To get a good photo, you kind of have to spin differently. Usually it’s too fast and chaotic. For ‘super spicy’ fire pictures, slow down as much as you can.
  • Good content is good content. For video, a lot of it comes down to making good, interesting content that people can relate to. It doesn’t really matter if you’re filming on an iPhone or a cinema-grade camera.
  • Master the basics. Learning the basics of photography and video — composition, frame rates, lighting, audio and editing — can go a long way. Try filming at ‘golden hour’ to embrace the power of natural light.
  • Circus artists: Give credit, and give back! Giving credit all the time is pretty important. And when working with a photographer, let them get something that could be for a portfolio — something they could actually use to get more work. Always keep them in mind and give them referrals to other people. If you’re dealing with event coordinators a lot, pass on the information for the photographer to work the same events.

DANI PIERCE

  • Focus on the artist, and how to capture what they’re trying to convey. One of the things that drew me to the circus community is that it was a community of people who had taken seriously things that other people didn’t see as careers — and they really had a focused attention and commitment to their craft. I’ve always appreciated that. What I love about photography is that we’re able to capture other people’s art.
  • Explore ideas beyond the ‘best trick’ or ‘favorite pose.’ I will often see beauty in the form that maybe the artist — that isn’t the most dynamic part of their act, or maybe they didn’t like how their lines looked, but I think it looks beautiful. I think there’s a balance of being aware of what circus artists strive for, and then what they would actually want captured and shared.
  • For live performances, be prepared and stay in the moment! Sometimes there’s only like three chances for the best shot. You really have to be ready to go. There have definitely been so many opportunities where I think, oh man I totally missed that shot, and that was the last performance.
  • Value your time and your work. That idea of exposure and art for art? No! People need to eat and pay their bills. I charge because I know how important it is for other photographers — that I don’t just give away art for free — because unfortunately, the way that the art economy is structured, it just does everyone else harm.
Photo by Dani Pierce for Street Light Circus, (c) 2018.

Further Inspiration & Education

From Dani Pierce:

  • Acey Harper is a fine art photographer based out of Paris. He focuses heavily on the human figure, with many of his shoots involving acrobats and aerialists. See how he set up a stunning portrait of aerialist Morgaine Rosenthal hanging by her teeth from the back of a 1957 Chevy in this video. The portrait appears in the book [private acts] The Acrobat Sublime, photographed by Acey Harper and written by Harriet Heyman. “Both acrobats and photographers are used to working hard and in hardship for our respective art, and for [this book], we shared the difficulties of bringing our visions to life,” Harper said in an interview with Loenke Magazine. Read the full interview here.
  • Gregory Crewsdon is a New York City-based photographer who stages extraordinary suburban scenes that resemble cinema in their exacting consideration of lighting, sets and cast. He cites Diane Arbus and Edward Hopper as inspirations. His work often takes on a surreal quality through the staging of humans, nature and architecture.

From Shamal Halmat:

  • Taylor Jackson is a Canadian photographer who specializes in wedding photography and videography. He maintains a blog with multiple courses for aspiring multimedia creators. Many of the courses focus on weddings, but class titles also include ‘Creating Profitable YouTube Videos’ and ‘Make Money With Your Photos.’ His YouTube channel is full of knowledge about everything from event portraiture to landscape photography, based on his many years of experience shooting photos and film across the globe.
  • Larry Cohen takes poignant urban photos in Baltimore (where he is based) and other cities. His current focus is the social justice movement. He has also worked extensively with burner communities in Richmond, Baltimore, D.C. and Philadelphia. You can see his latest work at I Shot Baltimore, a diary of his photographic interests.
  • Doug Sanford is a studio and event photographer who lives and works in Washington, D.C. He takes lively and colorful portraits of artists and other subjects, including his starkly beautiful series Playing with Fire.
  • Aaron Kirn is a North Carolina-based photographer who takes masterfully lit, charismatic photos of fire artists and other variety performers. Check out his instagram to see his amazing work, and view his online portfolio here.

Special thanks to Dani Pierce and Shamal Halmat, who generously provided many of the photos you see on the header of the Circus District blog.

The Covid Chronicles: Reopening the Circus, Part Four

LOCAL BUSINESSES RETURN TO THE RING IN THE COVID ERA

Note: This is the final installment of a four-part series highlighting the gradual reopening of DMV businesses. Part one profiles Emilia’s Acrobatics and Gymnastics, part two catches up with Pole Pressure DC, and part three visits Monarca in Flight.

From the collective shutdown to the current state of affairs, representatives of four companies specializing in recreational, artistic and competitive circus skills talked to The District Ringer about how the global pandemic has reframed their industry.


Before 2020, D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood attracted more than 2.2 million visitors in a six-month period. Fans of the Washington Nationals baseball team flocked there in 2019, crowding the streets and clamoring for pricey parking spaces.

As fans made their way to and from the stadium, many were probably surprised to discover another D.C. landmark — the local outpost of the Trapeze School of New York (TSNY).

The school’s blue-and-white building, with an indoor and outdoor flying trapeze rig, frequently caught the attention of passersby, and signaled that circus arts deserve a prominent home in Washington.

Due to a planned redevelopment at the end of summer 2019, the school set up shop a few blocks east of its former home. While relocating was at times stressful and unpredictable, the biggest challenge came in mid-March as Covid forced the the business to shut down completely.

“I certainly have moments where I’ve been thankful for my lines-puller training and my meditation practice — for that ability to take a breath and respond rather than react.”

TSNY-DC general manager Mandy Keithan said that when facing the incredible impacts of a global pandemic, her experience practicing and coaching flying trapeze has truly paid off.

“I certainly have moments where I’ve been thankful for my lines-puller training and my meditation practice — for that ability to take a breath and respond rather than react — because there is a lot of fear and urgency around many of the decisions that we make,” she said.

While the early stages of the pandemic were spent applying for federal paycheck assistance, keeping an eye on case numbers, researching best practices, and helping staff with unemployment claims, the school was able to resume classes in late June.

One key to their successful return was (initially) limiting enrollment to students who had taken classes at TSNY previously.

With so many new safety protocols in place — from health questionnaires to mask wearing to sanitizing to physical distancing — the management team felt most comfortable working with a familiar student base.

Before accepting new students, Keithan said, “We wanted to make sure that we were ready to give them the same level of hospitality, warmth and security — that sense of security that comes from building a trusting relationship with someone you’ve just met, when they’re about to help you jump off a platform 23 feet in the air.”

“When that’s the community expectation, and everybody’s doing it, it feels like a little microcosm of what we wish we were all experiencing.”

Keithan said that while the D.C. government has made many good choices regarding the public health emergency so far, there is room for improvement.

“A big part of it would be clarity from the government about the stages that we’re in, how their rulings are meant to be applied/interpreted to different facilities, and what their path is moving forward,” she said.

Fortunately, the school’s classes in flying trapeze, aerial and trampoline have run smoothly thus far.

“It has felt surprisingly positive and easy to set and hold a really high mask and distancing expectation,” Keithan said. “When that’s the community expectation, and everybody’s doing it, it feels like a little microcosm of what we wish we were all experiencing” in the world at large, she added.

Like other circus businesses in the area, Keithan said that TSNY-DC has occasionally had to educate the public about myth vs. reality.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there, some it being spread very widely,” she said.

During the summer, she noticed an unsubstantiated rumor circulating online that the District of Columbia was shutting down all kids’ camps. At the time, TSNY-DC was operating a children’s program in strict accordance with D.C. health and safety regulations.

Keithan said a strong team of staff incorporating a variety of perspectives is crucial to keeping everyone safe and supported.

“We feel very safe and confident in increasing what we do and still making sure we’re managing the flow of people and the level of protection,” she said, adding that it’s important to empower staff to firmly apply the established protocols.

“You can have the very best, most thought-out policies, and still have to — in every situation — make difficult judgment calls,” she said.

Part of TSNY-DC’s reopening strategy was to temporarily scrap drop-in classes in favor of workshops that keep student and staff cohorts consistent for weeks at a time.

They have since resumed a limited number of drop-in classes, and have gradually expanded their roster as the community acclimates to the new guidelines.

In 2021, the school will transition to a tiered monthly membership model, adding more drop-in classes that can be combined with workshops to suit students’ individual learning goals.

Keithan, who loves teaching and performing partner acrobatics as well as flying trapeze, said she hopes that 2021 brings improved circumstances for circus arts that rely heavily on physical touch and spotting.

“I hope that we’ll be able to keep the counts down and get to the point where things like touching and acrobatics can happen again,” she said. “Those are some really concrete things that we miss that we’d like to bring back.”

Next Friday (11/20), find out what trapeze fundamentals and new tricks TSNY-DC staff are working on during the TSNY Staff Flying Trapeze Demo from 7-7:45 p.m.

This event is free to view on Facebook live, and gives new and experienced students alike great insight into the learning process from those who’ve ‘been there.’

To view TSNY-DC’s upcoming classes and workshops, visit their website or Facebook page.

TRICKS OF THE LIGHT: PART ONE

Circus Photographers Keep Art in Focus

Note: This is part one of a two-part series. Look for part two on Nov. 20th.

Circus artists rarely stay still.

Our earthly limitations of gravity, strength and flexibility demand constant motion to maintain balance and control. Capturing the resulting whirlwind of kinetic energy in a single frame is a true feat.

Fortunately, DMV photographers are up to the task.

The District Ringer spoke to Dani Pierce and Shamal Halmat, both of whom excel at keeping circus arts in the frame. We learned what makes a good image, how the circus community can support their work, and what projects they’ve been dreaming up lately.

Dani Pierce for Street Light Circus (c) 2016

For Dani Pierce, photography began as a way to indulge her creativity without feeling the pressure of a live performance.

“I always had a camera in my hand, even when I was a little kid,” Pierce said. “I discovered at an early age that if I took a picture or made a video that was interesting, it was a way of passively getting attention without having to be a performer.”

She said the photography classes she took at the University of Akron offered a needed break from the law and business courses her family pushed her to study.

“I kind of wish that someone would have told me that there are people who actually make their careers out of photography, because I might have focused on it more in college,” she said.

Pierce said she felt lucky to be one of the last cohorts at the university to work with film.

Developing and printing photos in the darkroom gave her a tactile understanding of how to capture and edit an image, tools that digital photographers now manipulate with the click of a mouse. The darkroom also provided a comforting artistic space to glean inspiration from fellow creatives.

“The characters in that class were just all really unique, creative and welcoming,” Pierce said.

“I remember eating skittles while I was developing, which was probably so bad for my health,” she added, laughing.

From 2015-2017, Pierce took photos for the visual art/performance collaborative Street Light Circus, with exhibitions of her work appearing at American University’s Katzen Gallery, The Fridge (Capitol Hill), and The GallAerie (Mount Pleasant).

“It was a really lovely way to connect with other creatives,” Pierce said. “I think that was the first time I really felt like a part of the scene in D.C., doing something that people found interesting.”

Pierce said her ideal photo shoot would focus on the process of developing a circus act from concept to execution, showing the unpolished moments of creation that go into the final product.

“It would just be about capturing the artist and their emotions through really simple portraiture,” she said.

As for supporting photographers in the community, Pierce said acknowledgment and engagement are key.

“Make sure that if someone has offered you something, that you are giving them credit,” she said. “And I think the best thing you can do for other artists is to remember them and continue to involve them.”

Shamal Halmat, Shamal Deare Creative (c) 2019

Shamal Halmat started pursuing photography seriously about three years ago. Before that, he often found himself on the other side of the lens.

As a juggler, Halmat said he was “always seeing people taking videos and pictures, then never ever seeing the footage,” echoing a common frustration for circus artists in a world saturated by smartphones. “So I decided to get a camera,” he said.

Halmat’s father ran an audio visual company when he was a kid, and Halmat later studied mass communications, public relations and advertising in college. So while he had a firm grasp of the marketing aspect, he craved a deeper understanding of photographic technique.

Much of his education came from ‘YouTube University,’ which he described as “watching hours and hours of videos, going out and actually practicing, and talking with friends who were already established photographers.”

Soon enough, he was attending events like Sunset & Chill to snap photos and video of one of his favorite subjects — fire spinning. But getting the right shot wasn’t always easy.

“The fire will start out really bright, but then it gets dimmer, so you have to adjust your settings to keep up with it,” he said. “The lighting conditions are very tricky.”

Now armed with a portfolio of work, Halmat said he is interested in helping circus performers strengthen their branding through marketing and press packages, and would also love to create a documentary about organizations bringing circus arts to refugee camps and crisis areas worldwide.

This summer, Halmat served as an assistant filmmaker for Resist, a music video produced by Sunset & Chill supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. This mesmerizing short film highlights local flow artists backed by the tunes of Mustafa Akbar and Fort Knox Five Recordings.

“That was just great — being able to work with my friends, work with flow, and use a really nice RED cinema camera,” he said. “I’ve been really appreciative and grateful for all the things that Sunset & Chill has been doing for myself and the community.”

Credits: Directed By: Spencer Grundler Producers: Sunset & Chill (Max Labasbas, Sam Stevens, Wade Hammes) Edited By: Daniel Bowie Music Contributed by: Mustafa Akbar, Fort Knox Five Recordings 1st AC: Shamal Halmat Equipment Rental Courtesy of: Capital Camera Rentals Performers: Rae Hopkins Willow Snow Coffin Nachtmar AArrow Sign Spinners (https://aarrowsignspinners.com/tag/wa…) Sonny Tran Iman Bowman https://sunsetandchill.com

Further reading: How a diverse community harnesses its skills to support Black Lives Matter The Uncommon District, Aug. 21, 2020.


NEXT UP

Join us next week for Part Four of The Covid Chronicles, profiling TSNY-DC (Navy Yard) in its quest to resume classes and maintain community (safely) in unprecedented times.

And come back on Nov. 20th for TRICKS OF THE LIGHT: PART TWO, including pro photo/video tips from our featured photographers and some insight into the artists who have inspired their work.

Final Part of 1918: Circus & the Flu

(Psst: check out Part 1 and Part 2 for the full story. )

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“Admiral Dot,” Circus Midget, Is “Flu” Victim

Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 27, 19181

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Let’s round down this discussion on the days of the 1918 pandemic by returning to the biggest question: 

How did the 1918 Influenza Pandemic reshape American traveling circus? 

I doubt anyone could give a 100% accurate answer, but it is certain that this played a crucial role ushering in the truly magnificent and enormous years of mid century circus — although not necessarily in the way you might think. It certainly wasn’t the angle I expected  when I started this project. 

At the turn of the century, American traveling shows were no small side show. With the growing adoption of new technologies like the telephone and a web of interconnecting train lines that began in the 1870’s, circus shows boomed. By 1911, over 20 circuses were traveling by rail all across the country.2 The circus was a symbol of the progress and mobility of the new modern world.

What about that combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show: surely these circuses came together due to the devastating impact of influenza? 

This question is more complicated than a simple ‘yes/no’ (as is often the case with significant diseases in human history). 

Influenza did play a huge part. 

The new Age of the Cinema surprisingly also dealt a blow, as well as the declining numbers of the actual Ringling brothers. 

The biggest factor though, was probably the war. 

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Let’s look at the big picture. Little evidence of flu rates among circus performers has survived the passage of time, but considering the conditions, it’s hard to imagine no one was ill. 

Our current standards of cleanliness certainly were not a feature of the early 1900’s circuses. Despite the outdoors living and constant travel, cleanliness for many performers and the circus children consisted of two water buckets and a sprinkler of cold water on a sunny day in the back lot.2

These large shows packed into train cars were, in fact, quite packed. “On the circus, everybody’s crowded together like candy in a gumball machine,” remarked performer Merle Evans.3 A 1919 pamphlet from the combined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey show noted that “it is not unusual for 5,000 pancakes to be baked and eaten in a single breakfast,” which– hyperbole or not — is a lot of pancakes for a lot of people.2 And for all these people, there were few medical staff. A note from the 1950’s indicated that the huge, combined shows had only one doctor and sometimes a nurse for the entire crew.2

It is possible though that performers didn’t see high infection rates. They were known for being in robust physical health, spent their days outside in the open air, and were generally isolated from main society as their city-on-wheels rolled its way from town to town. It’s hard to know from our perspective today, since so little written evidence remains. 


Small aside: Who’s most likely to blame for this gap in written and photographic journaling of circus activities between 1905ish to the dazzling rebirth of circus in the late 1930’s? The movies, of course! The first nickelodeon theaters made their debut in the early 1900s, followed by silent film theaters in the 1920’s, and America was hooked. The cinema was the first real competitor to the circus for America’s intense curiosity and fascination with the exotic, and there was a distinct wane in circus audiences during this time.2


Unfortunately for the men of the Ringling family, they were struggling with different health problems. During the 34 years the Ringlings had toured, there had been as many as 7 brothers handling the top management posts. By 1918, most had passed away. John, Charles and Alf T. were the only ones still active in circus operations, and Alf T. was in failing health. There simply weren’t enough of them anymore to manage the behemoth circus.3

In fact, there weren’t enough men in general. 

With the advent of World War I (1914-18), thousands of able bodied men enlisted for military service and other thousands went to work manufacturing products for the war effort — including a substantial chunk of circus folk. Without the primarily young male workforce, the tasks of heavy lifting and keeping the circus rolling was left to women, older men and those physically unable to serve. Acts were scarce, too, with many of the performers serving the war efforts and European acts impossible to acquire.4

Business expenses kept rising and certain essential supplies were increasingly scarce. In July 1917, already a year before influenza, Charles Ringling wrote in a letter that he feared shortages in essential foodstuffs, such as flour and starch, which were subject to rationing.

“[C]osts are way beyond anything ever experienced before,” he wrote, “and difficulties of transportation are serious. We would be satisfied for the present year and the next to be able to keep our business running on the same plane as in past years without anticipating any very large profits.”4

Also, under the new Army Appropriation Act from President Wilson, the United States Railroad Administration acquired the essential power of determining locomotive usage and routes. And the Ringling Bros traveling circus just wasn’t a good enough cause to justify the 8 locomotives it needed for its two shows in 1918. The government could only make available half that number of locomotives, meaning that one show would have been unable to tour.

With a country at war and American culture rapidly changing, the influenza pandemic was the last straw, at least for the Ringling Bros. As the combined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey show, the two major circus companies could combine talent, consolidate supplies, and ultimately travel much more lean, which made the whole operation more profitable. In this way, the lasting effects of 1918 was also the first straw of the next age of circus. As stated in The Circus

“For a nation traumatized by war and sickness, the new [combined circus] venture, jam-packed with all charismatic stars, dramatic music, incredible thrills, and pageantry of two-shows-in-one, was a nice needed jolt of excitement.”2

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Citations

1. Unknown Author. (1918, Oct 27). “Admiral dot,” circus midget, is “flu” victim. Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922). https://search.proquest.com/docview/174430124?accountid=14696

2. Dominique Jando, Linda Granfield, and Fred Dahlinger. (2010). The Circus. Taschen. 

3. Dean Jensen. (2013). Queen of the Air [uncorrected proof]. A True Story of Love & Tragedy at the Circus. Crown Publishers New York. 

4. Jerry Apps. (2012). Ringlingville USA : The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success. Wisconsin Historical Society Press. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzYxMzAyMl9fQU41?sid=0750fb2d-f83a-4cbe-9bce-d5eac7586113@sdc-v-sessmgr03&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1

Live Circus Emerges from the Crypt

The Graveyard Show Offers Healing in a Year of Loss

While 2020 has been anything but kind to live performance venues and the artists who once packed their spaces with adoring fans, the good news is that some folks are reviving three-dimensional productions in unconventional ways.

Sidewalks, parks and backyards have become our new proscenium stages, serving as prime locations for moments of creative expression.

“It’s an interesting situation — in circus and in the arts more broadly — that because the traditional opportunities have completely evaporated, people want to do something, even if it isn’t what they would normally do.”

One such production is The Graveyard Show by Quark Circus, a ‘boot-strapped, socially distant circus show’ appearing in Alexandria tomorrow (10/17) and Sunday (10/18). The production’s four live shows are sold out, but an online streaming edition will air on October 30th at 8 p.m. Tickets.

Show producer Elizabeth Finn spoke to The District Ringer about the process of creating a circus performance in uncertain times.

“When I came up with the idea, I was really skeptical of it myself,” Finn said of the early planning stages back in May. “I didn’t know how to do it safely.”

To answer that question, Finn consulted with co-director and castmate Amy Nagy, who has a background in public health.

Finn made it clear that she would defer to Nagy’s expertise, coupled with real-time Covid data, to determine the show’s ultimate fate.

“I am trusting you to keep watch on those numbers,” she told Nagy. “As soon as you feel uncomfortable, we’re calling it all off.”

Safety measures for The Graveyard Show are numerous, starting with the show’s setting in an open-air backyard. Seating is limited to 14 people per show, with at least eight feet between chairs and mandatory masks for audience members and performers.

Additionally, Finn said she is asking guests to text organizers when they arrive on site, such that they can be escorted individually from their cars to their seats. 

“The one thing that we couldn’t solve was the bathroom issue,” Finn said, noting that she didn’t want to expose guests to shared bathrooms, which are known incubators of virus particles. “We want our audience to be safe, so treat it like a hike. Use the facilities before you come.”

Despite the challenges posed by the global pandemic, Finn said the enthusiastic support she received from Nagy and the rest of the cast indicated just how much they had been missing live performances.

“It’s an interesting situation — in circus and in the arts more broadly — that because the traditional opportunities have completely evaporated, people want to do something, even if it isn’t what they would normally do,” Finn said. “They are willing to be flexible, as long as you show good faith and you’re trying to do it safely.”

By July, she had assembled a line-up of nine performers specializing in aerial, acrobatics and juggling.

Unfortunately, in-person rehearsals with the full cast were off the table, limiting the potential for ensemble work. As a result, Finn said she abandoned the show’s strict narrative in favor of a cabaret-style format.

“You’re not going to be able to mend it and make it look like it used to. You just never will. All you can do is find a way to make that hole or that scar into something that is differently beautiful.”

Even without a firm plot, Finn said the show’s strong visuals convey grief, loss, and healing from collective trauma in a year when these themes have been unavoidable.

“The metaphor that I’m most excited about is this metaphor of the fabric of life, and this idea that death and trauma cause holes in that,” she said. “You’re not going to be able to mend it and make it look like it used to. You just never will. All you can do is find a way to make that hole or that scar into something that is differently beautiful.”

As a child, Finn competed on the national level in two-person sports acrobatics, followed by a foray into competitive diving. In college, she discovered aerial arts and developed an affinity for straps. Now working full time in the field of genetics and molecular biology, Finn is practical and measured in her show production strategy.

“I see connections between things. You have to do that in science. You also have to do that in art,” Finn said. “All good art is making a connection that other people haven’t seen and that is meaningful to other people.”

Despite her excitement to once again experience the thrill and personal connection of a live performance, Finn said she harbors even more anticipation for the untapped potential of online shows.

A notable quarantine inspiration of hers was Egress and Oriel, an online production mounted by the San Francisco-based troupe Vespertine Circus. 

The company’s cinematic, film-inspired presentation struck her as “taking advantage of the medium that we have, instead of trying to give you the raw connection of live theater without being able to — because it’s trapped in a computer screen,” she said. “It felt like it was leaning into the strengths of the medium instead of the weaknesses.”

The Graveyard Show’s sold-out run of in-person performances is happening tomorrow (10/17) and Sunday (10/18) in Alexandria. A filmed and edited version of the show will air on October 30th at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at this link. This show addresses themes of death, grief and healing, but is appropriate for all ages.

Follow Quark Circus on Instagram for updates on their next creation.


Note: Christian, who wrote this article, is a virtual cast member of The Graveyard Show. You are very welcome to accuse him of bias — but check out the online show while you’re at it. And email circusdistrict@gmail.com to let him know what to write about next!

The Covid Chronicles: Reopening the Circus, Part Three

LOCAL BUSINESSES RETURN TO THE RING IN THE COVID ERA

Note: This is part three of a four-part series highlighting the gradual reopening of DMV businesses. Part one profiles Emilia’s Acrobatics and Gymnastics. Part two catches up with Pole Pressure DC.

From the collective shutdown to the current state of affairs, representatives of four companies specializing in recreational, artistic and competitive circus skills talked to The District Ringer about how the global pandemic has reframed their industry.

This edition takes us to Falls Church, Virginia, where a vibrant home for circus lives just beyond the REI, an auto supply store, and a parking lot full of moving trucks.

Back in January of this year, the first thing you did when you entered Monarca in Flight’s three-room aerial studio was take off your shoes. Then, it was time to stretch. The colorful space, laden with extra-cushiony blue mats and a tidy shelf of foam rollers, warmly invited this ritual.

As students greeted one another with smiles and settled into their post-work or after-school routines, there was a comfort in making this place a regular stop for classes in aerial, flexibility and other circus skills.

Of course, this was before Covid-19. Before the pandemic disrupted this pleasant rhythm for instructors and students alike.

“It has become obvious that optimism will not win out in this case.”

With the threat to public health looming large, the studio closed its doors on March 16th, hoping to reopen once the case numbers stabilized.

To make matters even more difficult, Monarca in Flight owner Acoatzin Torres was in Mexico at the time, acquiring immigration documents to fully secure his legal residency in the U.S.

Torres’s husband B. Keith Ryder, who manages the office at Monarca, was balancing his concern for his husband’s safe return with their shared determination to preserve the business.

“The day after he left was when the country started falling apart,” Ryder said. “The border (with Mexico) closed a couple days later,” he added. “The consulate closed the day before his appointment. We were stuck in a weird limbo, not knowing when he was going to get back.”

When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northram issued a stay-at-home order on March 30th, Torres and Ryder knew they could not safely resume operations at Monarca any time soon.

“It has become obvious that optimism will not win out in this case,” they wrote in a Facebook post a day after the governor’s announcement. 

As a result, they had to postpone their spring aerial showcase and cancel their annual C4 Weekend, a four-day marathon of circus workshops that had attracted a growing number of participants in the last few years.

A week after the shutdown, Monarca began offering online classes, including popular conditioning sessions with local aerialist Gwynne Flanagan. 

Classes with charismatic titles like ‘Booty Blast’ and ‘Shake it Out’ allowed them to stay connected to their regular students while also engaging new sign-ups from across the country, Ryder said.

“We actually picked up a few new potential students through the online classes,” Ryder said. Some of these virtual offerings also allowed them to reach students outside of their usual business hours.

“We saw a fair amount of interest in the 8 a.m. classes, because it’s something to start their day,” Ryder said. “So it gives those students somewhere to go for their early morning stretch and rollout.”

After a couple of months of online-only instruction, they decided to gradually resume in-person classes in June, as Virginia loosened its restrictions on businesses like restaurants and fitness studios.

They began by inviting small groups of regular students back for open studio aerial sessions, “just to get back into the practice of having people in the space,” Ryder said.

“We’re fortunate in that our clientele are people who like taking care of themselves, so they want to do the thing that is the healthiest for them.”

In addition to the usual safety measures of mandatory masks and physical distancing, Monarca shifted to operating every other day, giving them time to disinfect in between sessions. Ryder says he runs an ozone generator overnight to kill any lingering contaminants, and also purchased medical-grade air filters to minimize risk during the day.

Despite stressing frequent cleaning and disinfection, Ryder said that cultivating a safe and responsible culture is the most important part of reopening a business right now.

“We’re fortunate in that our clientele are people who like taking care of themselves, so they want to do the thing that is the healthiest for them,” Ryder said.

“People go a little bit crazy sanitizing surfaces,” Ryder said. “That’s great, but that’s not really the big vector of infection. It’s the airborne stuff. So, do not be afraid to insist that people wear masks all the time,” he added.

In addition to gradually welcoming their students back in late June, Ryder also celebrated Torres’s return — with documents to secure his legal residency in hand — on July 10th. And following two weeks of quarantine at a local hotel, Torres was finally home for good.

“I don’t think we’re going to see anything like the sort of operation we had before — where we had full classes — until there’s a vaccine and herd immunity.”

In September, Torres resumed teaching aerial classes, and started to recruit new students outside of the studio’s pre-pandemic membership base.

“We want to make sure that whoever’s coming in — whether they’re taking a drop-in class or they have a punch-card — they are totally aware of our guidelines,” he said.

While the lengthy closure and limits on in-person class attendance have certainly impacted the studio financially, Ryder said they will stay in business. This week marked the fourth anniversary of their opening in October 2016.

“I don’t think we’re going to see anything like the sort of operation we had before — where we had full classes — until there’s a vaccine and herd immunity,” he said. “That’s over a year away I think. Luckily, we don’t have to rely on the studio to provide family income. As long as it breaks even or doesn’t lose too much, we’re okay.”

As for how the government of Virginia can help businesses like theirs during this time, Ryder said leadership is key.

“There’s not a whole lot Virginia can do other than continue to lead the way in making sure that the policies that come out of Richmond are as smart and as safe as possible,” he said.

To sign up for a virtual or in-person class, visit www.monarcainflight.com. Note that enrollment for new students may be limited at this time.


“If someone is having their first experience with flying trapeze, we wanted it to be just as good as it would’ve been before Covid.”

In part four of the Covid Chronicles, we’ll hear from Mandy Keithan, general manager at the Trapeze School of New York (DC) about the school’s journey through 2020 thus far.

Part 2 of 1918: Circus & the Flu

(I probably shouldn’t start with this, but I felt you needed to know. Circus District, with infinite stealth, in the pouring rain, in a town near you, just pulled off a not-at-all-illicit transfer of the Opaque. Trash Bag. Full of Juggling. Balls. Direct from the trunk of the infamous dealer, Thom Wall. These sweet goodies might just start appearing in a little free library down the street from you. Maybe. Who knows? Stay tuned for more to come in the next few weeks.)

In looking for the stories of American traveling circus during the 1918 influenza, what I found most striking was the information that was missing from the logs of history. For a start,

What was the flu epidemic like for circus folk? 

Their voices are so far entirely missing from the newspaper articles and documents of that era. Circus folk are treated as outsiders in these records; their world unfathomable by the average American citizen. For us today, we have all seen the changes this coronavirus pandemic has had on our personal work experiences and social expectations– similarly, what lasting effects, if any, did this have on the way circuses were run and the way they traveled?

We’re left to wonder at the precautions they may or may not have taken to protect audiences and performers. Also, a question that has really been nagging at me…

How many circus people were ill?

And who cared for them? 

Maybe circus medics or each family administered to their people on the go, or maybe the ill were left in each town to be cared for there. How did the circus folk feel about their role in the influenza epidemic as ‘probable disease spreaders’? 

I apologize for keeping on the question train here, but what happened to all the artists of yesteryear who, after finishing a successful final performance in Waycross, Georgia, are told by Charles Ringling that this is the last show ever, they won’t be hired next year, and they certainly weren’t going back to winter quarters with him? They were on their own. What did they do that winter, and where did they go? To my knowledge, most circus folk then were not likely to pivot from the circus to pick up a career in higher ed entrepreneurship, or any of the other directions that are possible for people nowadays. 

While much remains unanswered, some of these questions we might be able to tackle with the resources at hand. To start: 

Did the circus bring Influenza with it, as the Governor feared? 

We started on this question in Part 1, but the evidence would indicate that the circus folk were more likely to catch influenza in Charleston, South Carolina than to be carrying it. 

Charleston had a robust public health and hospital infrastructure, but a woefully low health budget that was only about half the amount of similarly sized American cities like Atlanta. On September 16th, 1918 (which, for reference, was after Ringling Bros announced it was coming, and before the Governor tried to keep it out),  the first cases of influenza were reported among sailors at the nearby Charleston Naval Training Station. The Navy worked quickly to keep sailors away from citizens and to control the disease, and perhaps they were successful. Regardless, other outbreaks were soon reported around the city. Also, did I mention a typhoid epidemic was raging in the city as well at this time? 1 

And what about: 

If the Governor of a State wasn’t even able to keep the circus from entering, where did the real power lie in these times? 

According to the headlines, the Governor had to negotiate with the Ringling Bros circus to keep them out of South Carolina, and even then, he only managed to limit their tour. The Board of Health flat-out refused to take part in this whole business, declaring that it would be “impossible” to keep all of the traveling circuses out of the state. 2 

I just want to re-emphasize this: the government of a state felt they did not have the power to refuse entry to all the circuses that would come across their borders, and had to negotiate with these nomadic entertainers hustling around the country by train and by wagon. An opinion piece in the Charleston News and Courier declared,

“Education and religion, it seems, are esteemed by the board of health on a par with theatres and emphatically of less importance than the dollar of the circus.” 3

Strange times, indeed. 

There’s so many unanswered questions from these stories, and I hope that by Part 3, I’ll be able to answer a few more of them for you. (If you have any good resources or people I should talk to, email me at circusdistrict@gmail.com!) 

space


Citations

(old habits die hard, though they do grow rusty)

1. University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. (unknown). Charleston, South Carolina Essay. Influenza Encyclopedia. http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-charleston.html

2. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Circus Problem Up To Governor. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.6080flu.0001.806

3. Unknown Author. (1918, Oct 30). Calls for Opening of Local Churches. Charleston News and Courier. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.8860flu.0001.688

The Covid Chronicles: Reopening the Circus, Part Two

LOCAL BUSINESSES RETURN TO THE RING IN THE COVID ERA

Note: This is part two of a four-part series highlighting the gradual reopening of DMV businesses. For part one’s portrait of Emilia’s Acrobatics and Gymnastics, click here.

From the collective shutdown to the current state of affairs, representatives of four companies specializing in recreational, artistic and competitive circus skills talked to The District Ringer about how the global pandemic has reframed their industry. 

Today, our series profiles pole fitness studio Pole Pressure DC in Logan Circle.

“It was like I was on the freeway, and I didn’t have an off ramp.

Devon Williams, CEO of Pole Pressure DC, was at Target in late February when she sensed that something was up.

Shelves normally stocked with alcohol and other cleaning supplies, which she purchased regularly to disinfect shared equipment in her studio, were suddenly empty. As the threat of the virus mounted, so did the impetus to close her business. On March 15th, she did exactly that.

“We were doing really well,” she said of the pole fitness space, which opened in 2009 and was offering 35 classes per week prior to the shutdown. “It was like I was on the freeway, and I didn’t have an off ramp.”

Some of her classes were booked seven months in advance. “How do I just cancel everything and start over?” she remembered thinking. “I would upset so many people.”

But like many resilient entrepreneurs in the District, Williams wasted no time going virtual. 

Less than a week after the studio’s closing, a number of her clients were able to resume their lessons online, from equipment-free flexibility and conditioning classes to pole classes for instructors and students who had an apparatus at home.

“They thought that I had a special line into the mayor. I was like, I find out exactly when it gets posted on the news.”

When Virginia started to reopen in May, Williams said she started getting daily phone calls from the commonwealth about when they could expect her D.C. business to reopen.

“They thought that I had a special line into the mayor,” Williams said, laughing. “I was like, I find out exactly when it gets posted on the news. There’s nothing special happening here. A lot of people were just ready and waiting.”

As the closure wore on, she applied for benefits from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, as well as a small business loan from D.C., both of which she eventually received in June.

After being shuttered for 110 days, Williams finally reopened the studio for in-person classes on July 6th.

With a slimmed-down selection of classes taught by five instructors (including Williams), the studio is only allowing students to take one in-person class per week to reduce the risk of transmission and to give all students a fair opportunity to enroll.

In the next few months, Williams is hoping to double her roster of instructors.

“I want everybody to understand what they need to do before they come in and what I’m doing to protect them, so that they can say, ‘Okay I feel comfortable teaching,’” she said.

Despite taking a substantial financial hit as a result of the pandemic, Williams said that stepping back from her usual business routine has allowed her to re-prioritize the strengths of her company.

“It’s given me an opportunity to really refocus on our core mission. Our main focus is pole, then aerial,” Williams said. “These complementary classes — like our flexibility and our handstand classes — those are great, but they are not our core.”

Narrowing her focus has had a lot to do with her studio’s spatial limitations. During its current state of Phase 2 reopening, the D.C. government recommends a limit of five people per 1,000 square feet of indoor space in gyms and workout studios.

With 1,500 square feet divided between the two rooms of her studio, Williams is hosting six students and one instructor per class at the moment. To make sure students can see their instructor throughout the lesson, she installed television monitors in each room.

“I think people are starting to realize that if they want to have these experiences, they’re willing to pay a little bit of a premium for it.”

One positive outcome for her business has been an uptick in students booking private lessons. “I think people are starting to realize that if they want to have these experiences, they’re willing to pay a little bit of a premium for it,” Williams said.

She also advised any small business owners offering in-person classes to heavily support their instructors in order to best serve their clients.

“The most important people are your instructors,” she said. “Unless you’re superhuman, you’re not going to teach 20 classes a week. You’re just going to be burned out.”

Even as she dealt with a lengthy closure that threatened her business’s stability, Williams still found time to curate two virtual showcases to replace the performances she used to host in the studio.

The shows featured performances by students and teachers, raising money for Mary’s Center — a nonprofit providing healthcare, education and social services to families in D.C. and Maryland — and Black Lives Matter DC.

Because online ticketing was too much of a headache, Williams also encouraged viewers to tip the performers. She said the generosity she felt from the community was heartening.

“It was really encouraging,” she said. “Like, there’s all these other people, you know, and we’re in this together and we’re supporting each other.”

To see Pole Pressure DC’s upcoming class schedule and sign up for a virtual or in-person class, visit their website.

-————————

“We’re fortunate in that our clientele are people who like taking care of themselves, so they want to do the thing that is the healthiest for them.”

In part three of The Covid Chronicles, we’ll hear from Acoatzin Torres and B. Keith Ryder, owners/operators of Falls Church, Va., aerial studio Monarca in Flight. Stay tuned!