CAMDEN, N.J. — Even though it’s July, the gym at Camden’s Veterans Memorial Family School wasn’t quiet or deserted on a recent afternoon.
In fact, it was a circus.
Rings, balls and bowling pins flew through the air, juggled and sometimes dropped as students practiced under instructors’ watchful eyes.
A thick, bright purple ribbon hung from the ceiling, before an acrobat wrapped herself in it, then twisted and twirled in the air.
A German ring rolled around on the wooden floor, with a teenager in a bright yellow T-shirt bearing the Trenton Circus Squad logo in the middle. With his arms and legs grabbing handles inside, he moved in circles, rotating ever closer to the floor like a flipped coin flipped and spinning on a table.
Occasionally, a girl would roll in and out of view, making her way around on a unicycle.
Teens were teaching other teens — part of the nonprofit Trenton Circus Squad’s two-week pilot program to introduce these and other performing arts to Camden, a city that, like the state’s capital, is surrounded by affluent communities and yet beset by crime, drugs and poverty.
Calling itself a “cross-community program,” the circus draws students from all over — from the stately old homes of Princeton to the rowhouses of Trenton, and from around the country.
Tom von Oehsen, a graduate of the now-defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College — “Class of 1981,” he said proudly — told the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill (http://on.cpsj.com/2sPcTnZ) that he “ran away and joined the circus” right out of high school. An athlete who performed in theatrical productions, he found his niche in slapstick comedy, but ended up as a director of admissions at a private school in Princeton.
Still, the lure of the rings never left him: He started a part-time circus program at the school, and later joined with Zoe Brookes, who had founded her own circus program nearby. Trenton Circus Squad is now in its third year, working with youths ages 12 to 18, who first learn acrobatics, unicycling, juggling and wire-walking, and then teach those skills to younger teens.
During the second week of camp, the squad will perform for groups from Camden and Philadelphia, including kids from Urban Promise and The Neighborhood Center in Camden. Their visit to the city culminates in a free performance at Rutgers-Camden’s Gordon Theater July 13.
Elley Burckhardt, who attends Bankbridge Regional School in Deptford, was a colorful and graceful figure as she practiced lifting herself onto the ribbon, wrapping it around her wrists and ankles before swirling around a few feet off the floor, her bright pink hair bobbing with the purple of the ribbon.
“This is really good for helping me with social interaction,” said the Collingswood teen, admitting that was sometimes a struggle. Each morning, Burckhardt takes the PATCO Hi-Speedline to Camden’s City Hall, where a Trenton Circus Squad member picks her up and drives her to the Cramer Hill school. There, she practices juggling, aerials and other skills from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The 17-year-old hopes to study theatrical performance and music theory at New York University, and she’s confident the skills she’s learning over these two weeks will not only translate for college, but also be something she can build upon. “I definitely want to come back and do this again,” she said.
That’s something Claire Picken of Newton, Massachusetts, has done. Now in her sixth year in a circus squad, the 18-year-old hopes teens she helps “would get a sense of inspiration,” like she did when she learned the skills she’s now teaching.
“I think they’ll learn they can try something different and be successful at it,” Picken said. “That they can set their mind to something that seems really difficult, and become good at it.”
Circus skills are more than “just party tricks,” she added. “They teach you to take chances, to trust other people, to commit to something. … It builds confidence in yourself and camaraderie with kids you might not otherwise get to know.”
The latter is part of the point, von Oehsen said.
Once students learn, they’re expected to pass on their knowledge to younger teens, fostering confidence in themselves as leaders and teachers. The program is free, and Trenton Circus Squad is supported through corporate and private donations. Many of those donations come from wealthy families whose children participated in and loved the program, he said.
Meeting other teens from different backgrounds helps foster understanding, he added. “All these kids, no matter where they’re from, are going through their own challenges. They learn empathy here; it feeds their character.”
Deuel Thompson came from Parkside, and was working on his juggling skills. Just three days into the program, he already was able to keep three basketballs going, something the 14-year-old said would definitely help him in his ultimate goal of playing professional basketball.
“I like this,” Thompson said, admitting he spent most of his summer days shooting hoops in the neighborhood. “It’s something different.”
That “something different” is one benefit von Oehsen hopes Camden and Trenton kids take away from the camp.
“They perform, they hear the applause, and it’s a rush, an adrenaline rush,” he said. “They’re looking for that rush, like any kids their age, but this can replace any ‘rush’ they might get out there (on the street).”
That rush, of course, isn’t the only takeaway.
Von Oehsen looked around the gym. Teens who’d just met days ago were chatting, laughing, juggling, tumbling.
“The friendships they make here …” His voice trailed off, and the show kept going.