ITHACA, N.Y. – Amy Cohen believes circus can change the world.

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Cohen is the founder of Circus Culture, a school located in Press Bay Alley on West Green Street. The new program, which launched in July with a youth summer camp, will offer its first full complement of classes for all ages this fall.

Beginning on Sept. 20, the school will provide instruction in disciplines like juggling and trapeze for students from a wide range of skill levels and ages, from infants to teenagers and the elderly.

Photos in story courtesy of Circus Culture

Cohen, an Ithaca College alumna, established Circus Culture following her belief that “circus is for everyone” and is a “powerful tool for building life skills.”

She discovered her passion for teaching circus arts at a very young age, trying out a circus camp because she was “just not quite perfect enough” for gymnastics as a child. As Cohen moved from camper to mentor at age 16, she discovered how much she loves helping people learn to trust their bodies and master tasks they never before thought possible, like juggling.

Cohen deepened her engagement with circus pedagogy as a theatre student at Ithaca College and as a Fulbright fellow in the United Kingdom, where she worked with elderly and very young students. She went on to explore “circus as a tool for social change, education, and creative expression” at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and trained with Chinese acrobats at San Francisco’s Circus Center.

Susan Monagan, an Ithaca College staff member who mentored Cohen, described her as “a force of nature.”

“I’ve known her for ten years and she has been completely focused on this idea that circus is transformative… that anybody can do it. I think we are so lucky to have her here in Ithaca,” Monagan said.

Today, Cohen specializes in group acrobatics, and enjoys balancing large objects on her face, such as tables and ladders. In addition to her work for the school, Cohen serves as the executive director of the American Youth Circus Organization, an Ithaca-based national network of circus schools.  

To launch the school and renovate the Press Bay Alley facility — the former home of the Ithaca Journal printing press —  Cohen turned to her personal network, and to the crowdfunding website Indiegogo in June. She raised $25,000 from the contributions of more than 200 supporters.

“I always knew that this would be the one project in my life that I would want to crowdfund for,” Cohen said. “For 10 years I’ve been telling people that ‘someday I am going to start a circus school in Ithaca’. I reached out to all of those people, and encouraged them to reach out to someone else who either loves Ithaca, loves circus, or happens to love both.”

While Cohen is the owner of Circus Culture, she emphasized that “there is an inner circle of circus artists, contributors, and volunteers who have been critical to making it happen,” including Sam Boyles, whom she met through the Ithaca College Circus Club in 2005.

Boyles, a performer and juggling teacher, has also handled administrative and fundraising for Circus Culture. During a recent interview with the Ithaca Voice, Boyles responded to a reporter’s questions while also practicing some wire-walking, an exercise he said improves balance, a key skill for jugglers.

In addition to a roster of regular instructors, the school has begun to host visiting teachers and performers, several of whom were practicing during a reporter’s recent visit to the Circus Culture space.

Chloe Walier, a trapeze artist visiting from Brattleboro, VT, said that “the space is amazing and the people are very friendly.”

Gretchen Ernst, a professional handbalancer who used to live in Ithaca and returns regularly to teach at Circus Culture, echoed such positive feelings: “I’ve been to a lot of circus schools and this one is so lovely, bright and open. There is a great energy; it’s very friendly and inclusive.”

Cohen’s next goal is to design specific activities for people who are differently abled. She has already participated in workshops with the Racker Centers — a nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunities for people with special needs — and has adapted juggling props for people who cannot toss, but can push and pull. In the future she would also like to do outreach with rural youth, who do not have access to Ithaca.

Ithaca’s Press Bay Alley, home to the new circus school

In the meantime, Cohen looks forward to adapting and building the school based on the needs of the students who join her this fall.

“I don’t just want to stick a circus school down in Ithaca and say that this is what circus schools look like. I want it to be created by the people who show up here and say yes to it.”

Classes range in price from $16 to $18 each, and drop-in practice sessions are priced on a sliding scale from $5 to $15.

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