Prescott Circus Theatre asks locals to “adopt” a circus

on May 17, 2011

A dozen kids clustered in a semi-circle in a school cafeteria on a Wednesday last month. The lunch tables were pushed to the side and blue gymnastics mats were stacked in a corner. The 8 to 10-year-old kids stomped their feet and clapped their hands in time.

“Prescott, what?” they shouted. “Clowns, what? Prescott clowns! Prescott clowns, we rule!”

These were the performers of the Prescott Circus Theatre and they were practicing their stepping routine. A tradition of African American fraternities and sororities, stepping involves using your feet and hands to stamp out complex rhythms with the precision of a drum line.

The routine is only one of many types of performing arts the kids in the 25-year-old West Oakland program know how to perform. They are part of an after-school program that teaches them several different kinds of performance, including traditional clowning stunts as well as other forms of rhythmic dance.

“I would like to do this as a job. I love this place!” said Genesis Fitzpatrick, 10, during a recent after-school practice. Fitzpatrick can juggle, ride a unicycle, walk on stilts and dance on top of a big red ball with no support.

These skills are more useful to a 10-year-old than you might think, says Prescott Circus founder Aileen Moffitt. “For kids to shine in this kind of way is unlike anything else,” Moffitt said. The circus combines the competitive edge of sports with the teamwork of theater, she said.

A crew of unicyclists cruise by on the Prescott Elementary courtyard during an April Practice of the Prescott Circus in Oakland.

Moffitt started the Prescott Circus Theatre in 1984 in her second grade classroom at Prescott Elementary in West Oakland. The program has now spread to six other Oakland schools, including Piedmont Avenue Elementary in North Oakland. Kids in the program perform regularly in Oakland and the greater Bay Area.

But when they’re not performing, they’re practicing. “Practice makes perfect,” is one of the primary messages young performers learn as part of the circus. Coaches regularly call out: “The more you practice?” and in response the kids call back “The better you get!”

Genesis twirls a bright ribbon while balancing on top of a big red circus ball, known as a “globe,” which she says is her favorite trick. It is not one she figured out right away, she said. “You have to practice,” she said. “You want to practice on the floor first.”

Genesis said the next step is to take what you learned on the floor—turning the ribbon wide and slow, for instance—and try it on top of the globe. “It was kind of hard the first time I did it,” she said. “I fell. But I got it after.”

Mahalo Bennett, also 10, is learning how to do partner tricks on her unicycle. She can hold hands with a friend while the two ride side by side. At a recent practice she was working on riding towards her partner, grabbing her partner’s hand, and then riding in a circle while waving with the other hand and smiling like it’s the easiest thing in the world.

The trick, she said, is not leaning on each other, but using your own balance. “If you practice hard enough you would get it,” Mahalo said. “It’s true in school too. Like math, that’s kind of hard. And like reading and all kinds of other activities. If you practice them more you, will get it right and be better at it.”

The troupe’s artistic director, Jamarr Woodruff, used to be a clown in the traveling Barnum & Bailey circus. Now he focuses  his considerable energy on teaching his young performers important life skills like hard work, practice … and juggling. Woodruff says juggling teaches kids to stay focused and calm. “The trick for any juggler is once a juggler gets in trouble you need to relax because once you panic it goes awry,” Woodruff said. “You have to be centered. You have to be grounded.”

Woodruff said this while watching Brighton Bagley, 9, flip big white juggling bats into the air. The boy was using his frenetic energy to toss the bats high and after a few tosses, they clattered to the ground. He leaned over, picked them up, and started again. “Dial it down a little bit more,” Woodruff called to him. “Use just enough energy for one flip.”

“It’s that relaxing into it that is where you find that peace. That is when the magic happens with juggling,” Woodruff said as the boy tried again.

Hannah Khan, who coaches kids as they learn to use the globe, said the same thing was true of learning to stand atop a sphere nearly as high as yourself. She hoped the balance work would reach beyond the physical for her young performers. “People who are in their body and grounded are less defensive and they can be more open,” she said. “It creates stronger people.”

Over the years the Prescott Circus Theatre has received support on the local, state and national level, founder Moffitt said. It has even won prestigious grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. But in these times, donations are suffering and grants are shrinking, Moffit said—if the circus does not find some new revenue streams it may have to close down all of its six satellite programs next year.

“We spent down our reserve in the past year to keep them all going,” Moffitt said. Now, there is only enough left to keep the original Prescott Elementary program running.

But Moffitt has not given up. She is asking local businesses to step “adopt” a circus. With six to choose from all over Oakland, she said, businesses can support a program in their neighborhood. It costs $10,000 to run one satellite school program for a year, Moffitt said, and she hopes businesses will consider teaming up to cover the cost and keep the kids clowning around.

Back on the asphalt courtyard at Prescott Elementary, Anderson Montoya, 9, zoomed past on a unicycle, trying to beat his buddy, Brighton Bagley, also 9, in a race.  But in an attempt to execute a zig-zaggy turn, Anderson took a spill.

Was he OK? “Yeah,” he said as he stood up and picked up his bike.

Did he fall a lot? “Yeah.”

Did that make him scared? “Yeah.”

So what was he going to do now? “Try again,” he said. And he zoomed off.

Groups interested in adopting a circus can learn more about the circus at www.PrescottCircus.org or email info@prescottcircus.org.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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