Above and Beyond at the INTERSECTIONS Festival

By Judy Lem


When you think of the circus, images of clowns with big red noses and lion tamers immediately come to mind. Organizations like Zip Zap Circus USA and the Trapeze School New York are working to show you that circus arts aren’t just for the theatrics, but rather can promote crucial leadership and social skills all while having a ton of fun.

To learn more about what today’s circus looks like, I went to the experts.

Jonathan Duell and his wife Sheryl Sturges founded Zip Zap Circus USA in 2008 in partnership with Higher Achievement, as a leadership program for underserved youth in Washington, D.C. The program is modeled after Zip Zap Circus in Cape Town, South Africa, which was founded by Brent van Rensburg and Laurence Esteve to give South African youth in disenfranchised townships a sense of community, a sense of purpose, and the understanding that they could create something beautiful through the wonder of circus arts. Duell notes, “They saw the possibilities that working with kids from all different backgrounds – kids from townships, as well as kids from rich, gated communities – could bring. “[Circus] provides opportunities for people to come to know and trust and participate with one another as they had never done before.”

Duell and Sturges continue to bring their work to children in need in Washington, D.C. despite the fact that the effort isn’t the most lucrative of careers. For them, Zip Zap is a labor of love whose returns provide a value much stronger than money. Duell notes, “The idea of play is a powerful tool for development in so many ways. The Zip Zap model is a very distinct model that is based on play and peer interaction. Even though Zip Zap is called a school, the reality is that if you create a safe space for kids to interact play to explore, then you provide them with a way to explore magic.”

Zip Zap Circus USA hosts an annual performance to benefit and continue the programming both here in D.C. and abroad in Cape Town. Partnering with the Trapeze School New York, the program brings highly skilled performers from the D.C. area come to execute incredible performances, which have raised over $20,000 in donations. Trapeze School New York (TSNY) began as a modest enterprise in Manhattan and has since grown into a collection of five operating sites, including a location in D.C.’s Navy Yard.

Kiersten Van Houten, who oversees youth programming for the TSNY in Washington, D.C., saw for herself the power of circus arts as a child and continued the practice through her tenure as a student athlete at Florida State University. Kiersten notes, “There is so much more that you can learn from circus than just the tricks, certainly.” She goes on to explain how circus arts, trapeze in particular, is a great way to build physical strength, but also a strong sense of self confidence, negotiation, and teamwork. “Circus is a great opportunity to serve kids and a be a good influence their lives.” For this reason, TSNY began a summer camp program, which has become incredibly popular for kids of all ages, both male and female. While TSNY has been promoting the March 1 summer camp registration date, Kiersten is swift to say that she’s sure the spots will fill up immediately, due to last years popularity.

If you’re not able to get a spot in the camp or one of TSNY’s classes, you can still get a taste for the great work Zip Zap Circus USA and TSNY do at the upcoming “Above and Beyond” performance at the INTERSECTIONS festival on March 1. The two organizations will partner yet again using the metaphor of learning how to fly, how to trust other, to fuel the show.


If you would like to join the Vassar Club of Washington, DC in attending this year’s performance, please email [email protected] to receive the special VCDC discount code. With each ticket purchase, you receive free entry to a circus arts workshop run by Zip Zap Circus. Ages 5 years and up welcome.

Published February 24, 2014