To see Salida Circus Founder Jennifer Dempsey in motion, you would think the driving force in her life was energy, passion, vision, order.
Yes, all of these–and something more: Ask her, and she might call the force serendipity, chance, fate, or–the implacable movement of the unseen world.
Coming to Salida in 2007 to stay with her mother after years abroad living what she calls “the Circus Life,” Dempsey says she sat and questioned where she had come to, and what she was going to do there.
“I said, ‘OK, Universe, I’m not going to do anything until you tell me what to do,'” the veteran circus performer mused. “So I looked around, and, well, I had a backyard–so I started there with a couple of kids, teaching them circus.”
This improvisatory modus operandi had become a typical process for Dempsey, of artistic inclinations as a youngster, who never thought she fit in.
“Growing up in Washington, D.C., I didn’t see anything that would be a fit for me,” she says. “But I was always driven by ideas, and was very interested in other cultures, so I took action from that mindset.” Those philosophical tendencies, even if impractical, eventually led her to worlds away from life as she had always known it.
“I went to Ireland and enrolled at Queen’s University Belfast,” she says, “during ‘The Troubles.'”*
Dempsey, looking on, worried about the children of the warring factions.
“There were these groups there with the goal of lessening the animosity by bringing Catholic and Protestant kids together and teaching them circus,” she recalls. “I knew this was it. I joined up.”
Dempsey dropped out of Queen’s University, started her circus tutelage, and helped with the kids.
“People thought I was nuts,” she laughs, “but from then on, I was very much on a mission, teaching the kids, living circus. And it turns out, this one almost chance decision would go on to enhance the rest of my life.”
Later, returning home and starting small in her mother’s backyard, Dempsey went on to build an organization that burst its local boundaries and now enjoys a national reputation. But the circus’s growth, its expansion of talents, and the engagement of other actors–with Dempsey as symbolic Ring Master–has always been fueled by serendipity.
Along Came a Juggler
Take the strange case of juggler and acrobat Joe Lobeck.
In the early 2000’s, he had joined the Army, gone into the Infantry, and served at Ft. Bragg. He’d found military life “extremely regimented,” he says, but had come from an equally regimented style of karate, adapted to Army life, and did well.
Then he got out. It was 2015, Lobeck didn’t have a job, and says he had no idea what to do next.
So he started walking. Past the Colorado Springs city limits, out onto the highways. He kept walking, walking, he says, “in a prayerful way. I was asking the Universe to give me some direction.” He had walked so far, for so long, in fact, that his hair grew down to his shoulders.
Then he reached Salida. Serendipity again. And the serendipitous presence of Jennifer Dempsey.
“It was this bizarre twist of fate,” Lobeck reflects. “I said, ‘Oh, there’s a circus in Salida?’ And I went over to the park where they were performing, and stood there, twirling this stick around.”
Catching a glimpse of the stick-twirler, Dempsey rushed over and told Lobeck–in a commanding tone that brooked no argument–“You’ll be Act V–get ready.”
Lobeck WAS ready. And after his act, responded affirmatively when Dempsey asked, “Can you teach kids?”
That was the Universe’s response to Lobeck’s cosmic query when he started out from Colorado Springs.
And it wouldn’t stop there–the just-enlisted circus performer added elementary kids’ music classes at a local school to his bond with his new, welcoming, community.
Yet another fated meeting was to manifest sometime later, as Salida resident Laura Hart went looking for wholesome activities for her two boys and found herself on the sidelines of a circus performance.
“I was just, you know, kind of THERE,” she remembers. “But I was immediately drawn in.”
“My kids went on and got involved with the circus, and I took them to the gigs,” she says. “So I started out as a circus mom.” Then, destiny.
“Supporting the kids, I felt myself being pulled into the various circus skills, and loved the suspended-type acts,” she recounts. Hart loved being up in the air, pulling off feats from on high.
“Once I started learning, I got really into the aerial Hoop, one of the aerial arts–it’s its own art form,” she relates.
Quickly adding to her skills, Hart became an extravagantly-costumed, star stilt-walker, and–in her spare time–began to serve as the circus’s Development Manager.
With Hart, like the many others on the improvised–and improvising–team, it’s all about the kids, about a community reaching deep to incorporate its many members, no matter how diverse.
“In the old days, circus performers were regarded as ‘different’ from others,” Hart says, “but we’re the opposite of that.”
“We’re all-inclusive–we involve anyone and everyone. You’re part of a family here. It’s what brings us together.” There is give and take, too, she says, between support and being a mutual motivator–each participant pushing the other.
“It’s kind of like, ‘I’ll be your cheerleader, and you’ll be mine,'” Hart says. “And if we have kids, or even adults, who don’t always feel like they fit in–with us, they do.” She adds performers can then “hide” behind a character or an act until they feel comfortable just being themselves.
“Even if one of ours feels there’s something about them they regard as negative, we give them permission to own it positively, to even turn it into a celebration.”
Hart claims being welcomed by a kindred group gives many circus participants a way to discover who they really are, away from the constraints of conventional social expectations.
“With us, each person can find their worth,” she says. “We treasure that.”
Adding Eastern European Flair
Another local mother of two boys also had her own reasons for wondering about fitting in when she was newly-arrived in Salida.
“Well, honestly, I was not too happy at first, far from home, and one time I asked myself, ‘How will I belong here?'” says native Slovak Krista Jarvis in her lilting Eastern European-modulated speech.
Born in Austria, and living for years in Prague, Jarvis had married an American and found herself in the States, settling, providentially, in–you guessed it–Salida, Colorado. Would Jarvis find her place here? Happily, the Universe had not stopped speaking.
“So, I heard of the circus here,” Jarvis says, smiling. “And I remembered my amazing years in Prague. That got me thinking.”
Early on in her life, Jarvis had journeyed to the Czech capital to assuage her prodigious visual gifts and find the acceptance of groups of other kindred artists.
“In Prague, theater was my magic world,” Jarvis exclaims, “I lived for it.”
The gifted costumer and set and stage designer lived night and day incorporating her craft into Prague theater, into marionette productions, into any theatrical venue that could be enhanced by her uncommon métier with cloth, form, shape, and dramatic space.
But presently, another life’s paradigm shifted: the curtains on Prague closed, the lights went down, there was a low rustling in the wings, and a hushed silence settled over the stage.
Momentarily, when the curtains pulled back again, the scenery, the sets, the ambiance, were utterly changed–and the players with them.
Now, the spoken word had altered; now, mountains rose to different heights. How would this new backdrop engage the émigré artist?
“When I first came, my boys started doing things with the circus here,” Jarvis reminiscences. “And when I saw the circus, the people in it, how they set it up, I said, ‘I can do that. I know I can do something with that.'”
As you may have already guessed, the Salida Circus family not only welcomed the European arrival, but went on to benefit from her fantastical costumery and set designs. And the theater professional says one of her skills in Prague–making do with next to nothing–now serves her new group’s needs well.
“In theater, there’s never enough money,” Jarvis declares, “and I know how to work with that–I love being CRAFTY. Using old clothes, making them into something renewed and beautiful, using odds and ends, discarded items, donations. All things are made new.”
Round and round the fates whirled: the little (soon to be big) circus now had its gymnast, juggler, stilt walkers, clowns, phantasmagorical costumes and sets, fund-raiser, aerial arts, and tumblers. But the wheel kept whirling.
Gymnastics Rounds out the Mix
An athlete passionately committed to kids’ gymnastics, meanwhile, had found his prospects for doing what he loved in Buena Vista steadily diminishing.
The former operator of Buena Vista Gymnastics Club, David Schneiter had been teaching gymnastics at a local high school, and says he started his school program in part to help diversify local athletics.
“I always thought the B.V. community needed a sport other than football,” Schneiter quips. “And the kids were really into gymnastics.” But an adverse fate intervened.
The school ultimately made the decision to do away with the program, and Schneiter and his students went to advocate.
“The kids begged them to keep the program, and even offered to pay for it,” he says. “But the schools wouldn’t budge–they canceled anyway.”
Schneiter then moved his club into shared space at a local warehouse, with his students following. But when the cramped space didn’t work out, the gymnast, discouraged, says he thought he was at the end of the road. Then something unexpected happened. A chance call from the circus’s Laura Hart was the catalyst that broke through the impasse.
“I’d been working with Laura’s kids,” Schneiter says, “and when we talked about where my program was at, things just shifted into a positive direction.”
Schneiter had been able to take possession of his former school’s gymnastics equipment, and the chance connection with the circus meant there now might be a place to house it all.
With equipment, an organization, and interested students, Schneiter says his practice of his art can enter a new, creative phase.
“One of the things I love about the circus is they think outside the box,” he says, “and as I adapt to what they do, I think we’re going to have a good exchange of skill sets that will benefit everyone.”
The Turning of the Wheel
At last, the troupe has been assembled. Now, Fortune’s wheel has turned, now this way, now that, drawing those together who belong together, charged with spinning out the ever-changing facade of humanity’s wild dreams of itself.
The actors, each so distinct! Drawn together almost capriciously from every distant place, every corner of the globe.
All of them singular, unique, they stand together now, a kaleidoscope of human potential, proclaiming not difference and exclusion, but belonging, inclusion, community.
Now, the players make ready, adjusting garments, checking makeup, and drawing in a quickened breath, feeling the exchange of energy with the murmuring, restive crowd.
The air is charged, the ring where they will execute their daring feats is electric.
It’s time: the band blares out, all eyes are on them. Will they be heroes? Will they, and the crowd with them, be merged into common delight, fantasy, destiny?
The children squeal, the grown-ups gasp. Magic is loosed.
Featured image: A Salida Circus New Year’s Performance. AVV file photo.
This feature story has been submitted by new AVV Contributor Sammie Wicks.
*Editor’s note: “The Troubles” was a term describing the Northern Ireland Conflict from 1968 to 1998, which violently pitted Protestant Loyalists fighting to keep Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom against Roman Catholic Nationalists who wanted to establish their territory as the Republic of Ireland. The result was bloody, and brutal.