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Circus Culture balances social change in Ithaca community

Alex Sosebee practices on aerial silks at Circus Culture.
By Haley Doran & Emma McQuade

Amy Cohen, founder and director of Circus Culture, believes that circus is a platform for social change.

After attending a conference her sophomore year of college for the American Circus Educators Association, Cohen realized she wanted to open her own circus school. She chose Ithaca because she felt connected with the community and wanted to create a space where people felt safe and expressive.

“Most people use circus as specifically a tool for social change because circus skills traditionally translate to life skills really incredibly,” Cohen said.

Circus Culture offers a variety of classes in the circus arts that are open to people of all different ages, levels and backgrounds. Currently, Cohen and a Cornell University student are collaborating with the Franziska Racker Centers to teach classes to individuals with disabilities by using adaptive circus equipment. She is also developing The Older and Wiser Circus that will work to make connections with the elderly community.  

Circus Culture student balances bowling pins on her chin during class.
Circus Culture student balances bowling pins on her chin during class.

One of Cohen’s students, Mini Vazenios, was first introduced to the circus experience by Cohen four years ago.

“It’s like how yoga is meditative for some people, this is my equivalent of yoga,” Vazenios said.

Vazenios wanted to find a safe place to practice her flexibility and follow her dreams of becoming a contortionist she said.

“People come to circus because they enjoy using their body in expressive or challenging ways or because nothing else is really working for them and they want a way to get in their body,” said Cohen.

Cohen believes that circus is a blend of the creative and athletic, making it unique to other forms of expression.

“You can come into it super athletic and then blend into the creative or you can come into it super creative with not much technique and gain the technique,” said Cohen. “That’s what makes it special.”

With the help of an Indiegogo campaign and support from the community, Cohen was able to raise enough funds to open Circus Culture. Because Circus Culture is a limited liability company, Cohen has the flexibility to use her school as a stage in response to the changing political climate.

“If things happen in the world, I want to be able to react to them in a way that feels in the spirit of circus,” said Cohen.

Circus Culture students practice lyra.
Circus Culture students practice lyra.

Circus Culture hosted a postcard party, an event where members of the community came together to write postcards to their Senators about concerns of social justice.  Cohen said she prides herself in saying ‘yes’ to opportunities of social change.

“This is a place where people can feel alive in their bodies and their minds wherever they are,” Cohen said. “You can also use circus as a tool for developing life skills for people who may not have had the opportunity and that’s something we’re looking to do more of.”

Cohen has donated studio space to two Ithaca College students who are creating a cabaret as a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union. She said she is also working to collaborate with the Southside Community Center for Black History Month and teach classes on African-American circus history.

Claire Dehm, who is spearheading the Black History Month program, will teach a workshop on black history in the circus during the week of Ithaca Public School’s spring break. Along with this, Dehm teaches acrobatics and aerial classes at Circus Culture. Dehm said that Circus Culture is a place for passionate and hard-working members of the Ithaca community.

“It’s just an awesome community and awesome people to be around,” Dehm said. “And on top of that you’re doing amazing things.”

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