An Oakland after-school program teaches kids tricks of the circus—and life.
At a recent performance at Oakland Technical High School, four towering dancers on wooden stilts take the stage in bright costumes that blend traditional African style with circus-inspired colors. The dancers’ legs look about 6 feet long under their flowing pants. As a live African drumbeat begins, the giant performers start moving along with the beautiful rhythm, bouncing and twisting in their African dance moves. One by one, each takes center stage and performs solo numbers, often on one foot, their movements almost surreal given their stilt legs. Audience members ooh and ah.
The dancers—fourth- and fifth-grade students from Prescott Elementary, a West Oakland public school—are members of the nonprofit Prescott Circus Theatre, a long-running after-school program. The show features students from the six Oakland schools that the program serves. Now in its 29th year, the dynamic circus arts and youth development program teaches underserved Oakland grade-schoolers circus, theater, and life skills.
At the core Prescott Circus Theatre program at Prescott Elementary, about 20 third- to fifth-grade students participate in the after-school circus and theater arts training program three afternoons a week, where they also receive homework help and tutoring. The Prescott students form the majority of the Prescott Circus performing company, which puts on more than 50 live shows each year. Last year their performances included appearances at Zellerbach Hall, the San Francisco Theatre Festival, and the Yerba Buena Children’s Garden.
The program also serves five other Oakland elementary schools—Lafayette, Parker, Piedmont Avenue, Laurel, and Manzanita-SEED—reaching a total of more than 170 Oakland elementary school students during the last school year. To be eligible for a Prescott Circus program, schools must have 50 to 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches. The program is free to all students; comparable private theater and circus training programs would run anywhere from $10-$30 per class.
Like a traditional circus community, Prescott Circus seems truly like a family, with instructors who started in the program when they were just elementary school students, and artists who’ve been working with the Prescott kids for many years.
Ceara Walton, 28, joined the Prescott Circus program when she was in fourth grade and then joined the Prescott Circus staff in 2004. She played the drums for the stilt dancers at the Oakland Tech show. “I love coming to work and seeing how fast the kids learn,” she says. “I feel like I learn something new from them every day.”
At a recent Prescott Elementary after-school practice, kids work on juggling, acrobatics, stilt walking, and body percussion. At any point, if a performer drops a juggling ball or falls out of step on her stilts, she looks at the audience and holds up one finger, a common circus practice that means “I’m going to try it one more time.” It’s a concept that Prescott instructors like to extend into the kids’ lives in general; the idea that there’s always room for another chance and doing something better on the second try.
One of the group’s signature acts is centered around a huge wooden circus ball decorated like the planet Earth; performers balance on top, one by one, by lightly walking in place as the ball moves underfoot. Once tentatively balanced, they attempt an acrobatic skill—juggling, skipping rope, or walking themselves and the ball across the mat. The kids make it look easy, but it most certainly isn’t.
One of the key concepts that the circus teachers convey to the kids is that practice leads to mastery, and it’s clear from watching the children practice and perform that they’ve internalized this idea. It’s like Kevin Romero, a 10-year-old Prescott Circus fifth-grader, says: “I just keep working on it even if it’s hard.”
Jashawn Sykes, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Prescott Elementary, steps off the ball after her balancing act and the smile that spreads across her face is infectious. She throws her arms up and puffs out her chest. She’s in her third year of the program and says it’s her favorite thing about school. “All my friends are here and we get along and respect each other,” she says.
The respect that Jashawn speaks of is not incidental. The life of a circus performer is very community-oriented. And it’s no different at Prescott—teaching the kids to respect and support one another is an integral part of the program.
“To me, the spirit of community is part of the magic of circus,” says David Hunt, Prescott Circus Theatre’s artistic director.
From a core staff with deep roots in professional circus and theater arts, Prescott Circus students learn an array of circus and theatrical performance skills—juggling, balancing, and clowning. Additional visiting and resident artists supplement the curriculum with individualized coaching in skills such as hip-hop, African stilt dancing, and hambone body percussion.
“The diversity of what we offer ensures that all kids find something that they’re good at,” says Hunt. “All the kids can really find their place in the sun and go through their own journey in their confidence.”
Hunt stepped into his role as artistic director in 2011, but has been involved with Prescott as a teaching artist since 2004. His circus roots go back to his own youth; he started juggling at age 12 and performing in high school in Chicago. After college he moved to New Orleans, where he performed professionally for many years and helped start a circus school. He still tours in the summertime with a professional performing company, and in 2008 he started his own open-air, one-ring circus, Circus Bella. Many of his students from the Prescott Circus go on to perform in Circus Bella as well. In his interactions with the kids, he’s demanding, patient, instructive, and shows his love for circus arts and the students.
“I think part of the appeal of circus for kids is that it captures the wonder of what’s possible,” says Hunt.
And judging by the Oakland Tech performance, these kid clowns are capable of a lot.
The annual show gives kids from all six schools a chance to shine as they perform the skills they’ve been practicing all year. The performers are well-coordinated, both in their skills and in the difficult task of putting on an hour-long show for a full theater. The teamwork and respect the kids show to one another isn’t just a given—it’s an intrinsic part of the program that carries back to their school lives.
At the after-school practice, about 20 kids sit mesmerized as four others take the stage in Prescott Elementary’s gymnasium. Each child moves to the front and begins a rhythmic body percussion performance, drumming chests, torsos, and thighs with hands to create a lively auditory show, as the others keep time. The audience is attentive not just out of duty, but because these children really know their stuff; their level of skill and confidence reflects their intense training and commitment. When the performers finish, they receive a rousing round of applause from their peers and instructors.
Body percussion, otherwise known as hambone, emerged during the slavery era when African-Americans had their drums taken away so that they could not pass messages through music. It has been an integral part of the Prescott Circus Theatre program largely thanks to local professional circus performer Derique McGee. McGee has been studying and performing hambone most of his life and has passed on his love of the art form to the kids in the program for the past 17 years.
One of those kids, Demarcello Funes, 21, started in Prescott Circus when he was 10 and is now one of the instructors. He always wanted to come back and work with the Prescott kids, says Funes, who now teaches hambone and performs professionally.
There’s a similar story behind the African stilt-dancing routine and the circus performers’ impressive hip-hop moves. Local artists, like hip-hop dancer Carla Service and African stilt dancer Baba Shaka Zulu, have been mentoring Prescott Circus kids for many years.
“The expectation that’s set for these kids is high and they definitely reach it,” says Tristan Cunningham, 28, an instructor who’s in her second year of working with the program. She’s worked with kids in many circus arts instruction programs, but says there’s something special about Prescott, where the kids are there by choice and likely would not pay to take the class (which is offered free) outside of school. “It’s beautiful to see the transformation; the kids find themselves and their voices and discover who they are.”
Cunningham is a nurturing presence at a recent afternoon practice, providing a warm shoulder, sound advice, and reassuring words. It’s clear the kids respect the instructors and take away more than just circus skills.
Prescott Circus is funded by a varying array of sources, many of which have been struggling in current economic times. Foundations, private donors, an Art in Schools grant from the Oakland Cultural Funding Program, and the California Arts Council have all been consistent sources. The program gets some money from the school district, but that’s been reduced drastically in the past few years, says Hunt.
Despite funding challenges, Hunt and the Prescott staff remain committed to providing the program to as many Oakland kids as possible. They just started a free Saturday advanced training and leadership program that’s open to second- and third-year Prescott Theatre students and older alumni who want to advance their skills. The circus also offers a five-week summer program that combines circus and academic work and culminates in two days of shows at Oakland’s Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts. The goal of the summer program is to ensure kids don’t lose traction over the break, both in their circus and school performance. For the kids, it’s a continuation of something positive that’s become an integral part of their lives.
When asked what she enjoys most about Prescott Circus, 11-year-old fifth-grader Tatiana Thomas has a hard time putting her finger on one skill she’s learned, though she performs with an obviously honed technique. She thinks for a moment and answers: “I just love all of it—when I’m feeling down in the morning, knowing I get to do clowning is what makes me want to come to school.”
Keri Hayes Troutman is a freelance writer who lives in Berkeley. She is a longtime contributor to Oakland Magazine, Alameda Magazine, and Parents’ Press.