Circus Culture: The Greatest Stunts in Ithaca
It takes less than 60 seconds into my first class at Ithaca’s Circus Culture to realize I am about to embark on a pretty wild adventure.
On the mat next to me, a 13-year-old stretches her split, her rubber band legs extending from her torso at perfect 90-degree angles. A nearby tween effortlessly glides from a handstand into a backbend.
And me? I am staring down middle age. Years of triathlons have damaged my knees to the point that I declare it a good day if I can sit on the floor without getting stuck.
Yet here I am, enrolled in an introduction to aerial class. Never one to use my age as an excuse, I’m anxious to explore this colorful playground. Trapeze bars, ropes and vibrant fabrics dangle overhead, while bouncy trampolines, stacks of hula hoops, and bins of juggling clubs pack the floor around me.
Alumna's Passion for Circus
The space — and its vivid gear — is a dream come true for Amy Cohen ’08. Last year, the theatre arts management alumna successfully raised more than $50,000 — including $26,000 in a crowd-funding campaign — to open Circus Culture in a downtown space that once housed the Ithaca Journal’s printing presses.
Cohen, who grew up in NY’s Westchester County, spent her childhood “as a monkey who couldn’t stop climbing on things.” Her parents enrolled her in gymnastics and circus programs, where she quickly progressed from student to teacher.
In 2004, while employed at a summer circus camp, Cohen met a fellow incoming IC freshman, Matt Karp ’08. The fast friends vowed to bring circus to their new school.
A few weeks later, Cohen made good on that promise, rolling her beloved unicycle into her dorm room.
“It was the very first thing I moved in,” she laughs. “My roommate just looked at me and didn't know what to say!”
Soon after, Cohen and Karp co-founded ICircus, a student group that practices and teaches juggling, acrobatics and other circus arts. The following year, as president of the club, Cohen was invited to a conference hosted by American Youth Circus Organization (AYCO), a national nonprofit dedicated to supporting young performers and circus educators. She asked IC for — and was granted — a travel stipend to attend.
“That little bit of generosity by IC was a game changer,” Cohen says. “It blew my mind to realize people make careers out of circus, and that I could do it, too.”
Sam Boyles '14 and Kevin Flanagan '17 (right), former and current presidents of ICircus, performed this February in a show at Circus Culture titled Manipulation.
After graduation, Cohen traveled to London as a Fulbright Scholar and researched contemporary circus in Europe. Once stateside, she enrolled at NYU, where she mastered in a field of her own creation: circus as a tool for social change, education, and creative expression.
A year later, Cohen was hired as the first paid executive director for AYCO, the very organization she visited as an IC student. In her spare time, she worked on a business plan and began to cultivate relationships in the Ithaca community that led her to the donors, teachers, and landlord who helped make her vision for Circus Culture a reality.
Today, Cohen continues to lead AYCO, while managing her business and teaching 12 classes a week. Somehow, she still finds the time and energy to dream big.
Eventually, Cohen hopes Circus Culture can offer therapeutic circus classes for individuals with special needs and the elderly. She also wants to partner with local nonprofits to provide financial assistance to students who want to learn circus but face geographic or socioeconomic challenges that limit their participation.
“I want to share circus with everyone who wants to learn it,” Amy says. “That’s at the heart of everything I do.”
Amy’s inclusive approach means Circus Culture is a space for athletes and artists alike — even babies have their own weekly hangout time.
“The ideal student is someone who has a great sense of humor and has the confidence to go at their own pace,” Amy says. “It’s someone who doesn’t say, ‘I can’t do that,’ but instead, ‘I can’t do that yet’.”
Back to Class
And me? There’s still a lot I can’t do yet. But it’s been eight months since that first class, and I keep going back.
Sure, I can’t contort my body like some of the teens. But Circus Culture attracts a wide variety of students, and I even convinced a fellow IC staff member to train with me three days a week. At times, our extra years can actually be a benefit: we understand how to control our bodies with both discipline and patience.
My progress may come in small increments, but it is noticeable and cumulative: I now climb the rope over and over without getting winded. Every week, I notice my split is a tiny bit lower, my biceps a little bit larger.
A few Sundays ago, I inverted on the silks. It’s a difficult move that serves as a right of passage for many aerialists. My internal demons were determined to convince me my arms could not hold my body weight, upside down and 10 feet off the ground.
I finally did it.
After I got back down to the ground, I was shaking — a combination of fatigued muscles and unbridled joy.
That’s the point, Cohen says.
“The small victories are the big victories,” she says. “In circus, when you take a risk and fail, that’s still something to celebrate. And when you take that risk again and succeed? That’s the moment we live for.”
Circus Culture is located at 116 W Green Street in downtown Ithaca. For more information, including class schedules, visit www.circusculture.org.
Read a story by Amy Cohen '08 about the founding of ICircus.