Their celebration includes more than a dozen performances
Salida Circus Director Jennifer Dempsey said she didn’t start the circus. Instead, “It started me.”
“When I moved here (in March 2007) I had 18 years of social circus experience, and I was giving myself the option of doing something else. I laid around in my condo for two weeks — but it was a no brainer. I just started doing workshops. (The circus) won’t let me run away from the circus.”
Dempsey’s first exposure to a circus happened during her third grade physical education class. Later, at 21, Dempsey moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland, as part of a college study abroad program to study Irish and English literature.
She admits she was distracted almost immediately. “I saw a flyer advertising a circus workshop at a church and that was my introduction to the Belfast Circus,” Dempsey said.
The Belfast Circus is a social circus, which means it tries to be “a medium for personal and community transformation.” The Belfast Circus was successful in bringing “Catholic and Protestant youth together under one big top during a time of political turmoil,” Dempsey said. “Circus is secondary to community building, and I was very inspired by that.”
Dempsey has built Salida Circus on the social circus model. “It’s more than a vocation; it’s my life calling,” she said. “I so belong in the mission of social circus.”
After working with the Belfast Circus for 12 years, Dempsey spent a year touring with another circus in London, and then she and her younger sister Jessica founded the Scarlet Sisters Circus, based in California for almost five years.
Over the past decade, the Salida Circus has grown from giving small workshops in Dempsey’s backyard to last year’s 71 professional gigs and a paid trip to Jordan.
Dempsey said she received a “random Facebook message” last year from a woman asking if the circus would come to Jordan. “I thought it was a joke,” Dempsey said. “But we talked, and she said she’d pay for everything. Later we found out that she’s the daughter of the former prime minister of Jordan”
Five Salida Circus troupers traveled to Amman, Jordan, last September to direct a five-day camp, host neighborhood workshops and perform in schools.
Dempsey is amazed at the growth of Salida Circus. “I’m proud that the circus travels all over the world now, but I never set out for it to be like that. When I held circus workshops in my backyard I was happy,” she said.
Today, the Salida Circus averages eight to 10 workshops per week, and Dempsey estimates the circus reaches about 650 kids per year through workshops, camps and 15 local performances. She praises her team of tutors and board of directors for supporting the efforts of the social circus.
Dempsey said the circus has drawn great talent to Salida.
Circus juggler Joe Lobeck joined Salida Circus nearly two years ago, bringing his skills in martial arts, gymnastics and parkour. “I moved here, found the circus and got hooked. My family later moved out here and joined because I suggested they give it a shot,” he said. Now, Lobeck’s mother, sister and family dog are all circus members.
“I think I enjoy the liveliness of the circus a lot, there seems to be so much joy,” Lobeck said. “But also, I love traveling and especially connecting with people from all over the world. Really, it’s the people I love the most.”
While in Jordan, Lobeck said he experienced culture shock, but his circus activity melted some language and cultural barriers.
“When it came to performing, it became evident that ‘circus’ is a common language,” he said. “I’ve made lifelong friends from that side of the world, and (being there) also exposed how our media influences a skewed perception of the Middle East. People are just people, like us. Just trying to live, be happy and raise families.”
Dempsey said the Salida Circus was selected to be part of the Cirque du Soleil Social Circus Network, whose founders coined the term “social circus” in the 1980s. Dempsey said the Canadian circus troupe got its start by working with street kids. “They found it to be a powerful medium for at-risk youth,” she said. Salida Circus is also the only American social circus in the Caravan Circus Network, and was in-
ducted last year.
“I’m so happy people are understanding the phrase ‘social circus.’ When I moved here I kept talking about it and people didn’t understand, so I stopped talking about it and just did it,” Dempsey said. “The notion of social circus is a magnetic thing — it’s a childhood dream come true.”
The Salida Circus will host more than a dozen performances, workshops and events throughout Memorial Day weekend in Salida. Be sure to catch at least one, or four.
For the full list of events, check our calendar.