by Manuel Garcia, Circus Mojo teacher, performer & mentor
My journey with Circus Mojo all began when I attended the 2nd International College Circus Festival as part of Kalamazoo College’s Cirque Du K (CDK).
Throughout the festival, I got to know the Mojo team and understand their vision, specifically their work in hospitals, nursing homes, and the Children’s Home of Cincinnati, and all they do for all the community. I applied for a summer internship, was accepted, and later asked to be more than just an intern. Now I work as a roustabout, mentor, teacher, and performer.
I started out working in the summer camp with three other members from CDK: Will, Austin, and Jonathan. We arrived Sunday afternoon and were thrown into the mix on Monday morning. It was definitely an unexpected, throw-you-into-the-deep-end, way to start with an organization. But we didn’t sink, and anytime we needed a lifeline, there were other staff and mentors to help us.
I’m so glad that I got to start with a few people that I knew, as it made the transition into Mojo smoother. We were learning new games to play with kids, ways to teach skills, and spotting techniques to keep kids safe while balancing on objects such as the walking globe and low tight wire. Relearning skills such as juggling, partner acrobatics, and diabolo in their simplest forms (to teach to kids) and breaking habits of spotting young adults was difficult, but we had to learn the ‘Mojo’ way and adapt to our new environment. By the end of the internship we all had over 200 contact hours with kids just from summer camp. We also had gained experience through workshops, performances, and strolling gigs (walk-around performances and crowd-interaction at functions to provide atmosphere and/or entertainment).
After a few weeks, I started working at nursing homes and the Children’s Home of Cincinnati (an outreach program for at-risk youth). Working in nursing homes was tricky at first because some people would be in wheelchairs or disabled and I hadn’t worked with anyone but kids. I learned that Mojo focuses on what each person can do–whatever his/her skill level or ability we would be sure to teach each person a skill they could accomplish. Next, I started working with Andrew at the Children’s Home; he had been there on behalf of Mojo many times and had a lot to offer in way of my development. Kids at the Children’s Home can sometimes be difficult or not want to join in, but we engage them on equal footing and give them back the power in the ability to say they don’t want to participate at that moment. After they see everyone having fun and realizing they could be doing the same, they often join in. Working with such different ages, backgrounds, and abilities was definitely a challenge, but I developed some essential skills: being perceptive, patient, and adaptable, as well as being able to do/teach the skills we bring in a variety of ways. Doing so made it possible to deal with various situations and be successful in making most everyone happy and participate.
Next came the birthday parties and performing gigs. Working at a Mojo birthday party is completely different than what I expected. I knew we would give a small show and then give workshops to the kids, but it’s faster paced than anything I had yet experienced. Kids are only at the party for a few hours, but still want to try as much as they can. We have to give them a chance to try lots of circus skills, but not necessarily teach them like we do in summer camp because of the limited time we have with them. A birthday party can feel like a week of summer camp crammed into a few hours. Sometimes kids aren’t even the difficult part. On rare occasions we also have to deal with parents that are less than ideal. When the birthday party is over, everyone has left, and we have cleaned everything, we can sit back, smile and reflect on how happy we made people on their special day.
You would think performing might be the easiest because all you’ve got to worry about is putting on a show. In reality it includes: set up, rehearsals, coordinating with other performers, musicians, and tech (checking mics, sound systems, lights, etc.). It is a production! It is also incredibly fun. I had the chance to meet some fantastic people from all over the world and developed friendships along the way. My favorite performance of the summer was Devou Deux, where we performed in Devou Park with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. It was amazing to perform to live music, and such a great experience meeting performers from New York, Antigua, Malaysia, and beyond. I even got to breathe fire with Austin during the finale as Sharon, an aerialist from Mexico city, did a dangerous-looking maneuver in the silks.
These experiences have helped me develop my skills with children, crowds, networking, and most importantly, awareness. When working with children, it’s most important to be aware of all surroundings (tables, chairs, people, etc.) and make sure everyone is being engaged and safe. These are the critical skills for working at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. It is my favorite thing to do with Mojo. We go to the hospital to bring both joy and distraction to kids and their families at a place where no one expects to see the circus. I’ve been training under Sharon, Paul, Andrew, and Elliot. Each of them has a different style of ‘clowning’ at the hospital so it’s great to be able to work in all these different styles and still be able to teach kids. Teaching kids how to spin a plate or balance a feather is its own reward when you see the joy in that child’s face in such a strange environment. Getting to this point was not a smooth path: there were lots of obstacles, tests, and challenges along the way.
For example, during one of the earlier weeks in my training, we were working with a boy who was visually impaired. This was my first time working with someone who couldn’t see well, and I was a little nervous about what we were going to do. We still did tricks like spinning a plate on his finger and teaching him to balance a feather, but we had to do it with a completely different approach. We let him feel the shape of the plate and stick before spinning it on his finger. While it was spinning on one hand, he brought his other to feel the rotation and gradually brought it to a stop. Balancing a feather was especially tricky because one of the easiest ways to balance something is by looking at the top of it, but the boy was able to learn all the tricks we shared with him! It was incredibly gratifying to see him succeed and it was a great learning experience for me, in that I now had a new way to teach tricks when other ways might not work. All the challenges I faced were met head-on and helped to develop me into a performer/ caretaker who can thrive in various environments and situations. I am still learning and still stumble, but we have a great staff who are always willing to offer advice, and lend a helping hand.
We are currently preparing for a trip to Mexico City for the 3rd International College Circus Festival, and I could not be more excited. This festival is what started my journey with Circus Mojo and it’s amazing to realize a year has flown by since I first met the Mojo team. I will also be running Summer Camp this year! I’m looking forward to mentoring and teaching lots of great kids this summer, as well as meeting and working with the new Mojo personnel that will be joining us.