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  • 23 Oct 2014

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Run away with the circus!

Joy Now Arts offers children, teens escape from ordinary


by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF JEREMY BARON/JOY NOW ARTS - Circus arts are part of the program at the Joy Now Arts Project, which provides instruction for three different age groups, starting June 29. For info: joynowproject.org.Isadora Star, who’s finishing her junior year at Franklin High School, can name the place and time she has been happiest in life — the Joy Now Arts Project.

“It’s hard to pinpoint the best thing about Joy Now, because it’s all so very grand, but really I think it boils down to the people,” she says. “Teachers and students alike — they are the most loving and kindly humans, and I always feel right at home there.”

Such words are literal and figurative music to the ears of Robin Jackson, Joy Now’s program director, who co-founded the program four years ago with Ariel Brantley-Daglish. Jackson notes campers can learn how to walk on stilts, design and make costumes. They can juggle, twirl hoops, use balance boards or, in the case of teens, improve their ability on an instrument.

Joy Now circus campers and after-school students have performed at such events as the Waterfront Blues Festival as well as the Crystal Ballroom, he says.

Jackson is an original member of the March Fourth Marching Band, a mostly instrumental group whose horn-blowing and drum-beating members often perform alongside stilt-walkers, acrobats and other circus-type characters, Jackson now plays with Vagabond Opera as well as his own band. Jackson has been a youth mentor and educator as well as a saxophonist, pianist, violinist, percussionist — OK, he pretty much plays a lot of stuff.

“It’s really a personal development program designed as a circus program,” Jackson says of Joy Now, which is in the midst of becoming a not-for-profit and operates informally as an offshoot of March Fourth, many of whose current and former members have worked with the project. “It’s all about helping youth being seen and heard and creating more success in their life through art.”

Joy Now will host circus day camps this summer for teenagers from June 29 to July 4; for children ages 5-8 from July 28-Aug. 1; and for children ages 8 to 12 from Aug. 11 to 15. Throughout the year, the project has offered various programs at such sites as St. David of Wales Church, 2800 S.E. Harrison St., as well as Peninsula Park in North Portland.

You can learn more about the program at joynowproject .org. Even if you don’t think you can afford a camp, Joy Now does offer scholarships for those in need.

Camp builds confidence

Star says she can’t think of anything she dislikes about the camp.

“In the past I would have said it was too short, just being one week in the summer,” she says. “Now there is always a winter session, and it runs through most of the school year with after-school classes, so I get to go to advanced stilting every Tuesday.”

Her mother, Suzanne Miller, says her daughter’s time with Joy Now has instilled confidence in her daughter, who is “fearless” about trying new things.

“I would have never guessed she’s such a natural on stilts,” Miller says, adding learning how to walk tall includes learning how to fall.

“That’s the first thing they teach you on stilts — how to fall and how to get back up.”

That’s a lesson with both literal and figurative applications for a young person, she says, a point Star seconds as she says the camp has provided her with a zest for life.

“It’s really given me so much, from being adventurous and trying new things, performing and spreading happiness, to meeting fantastically amazing people who have become friends and role models for me.

by: COURTESY OF JEREMY BARON/JOY NOW ARTS - Camaraderie among kids helps breed confidence and Joy Now Arts Project circus day camps promote self-expression.

Under the big tent

Jackson says campers and students like Star come from a variety of backgrounds, although many already are studying music.

“We definitely seem to draw people who are into the performing arts,” he said. “We get a lot of band kids who play in school band or are in schools that don’t have a band.”

A number of children and teenagers are drawn from families who are fans of the March Fourth Marching Band, he adds. The band’s intoxicating shows stir an interest in many folks about how to join in on the fun.

“It’s just like this whole fantastical world that matches stage shows and stories and really physical skills,” he says. “It just brings people into this world where they can escape the doldrums of their world.”

One of the folks helping children escape the mundane is Melissa Rae Pancurak, the project’s circus arts and movement instructor. Pancurak teaches children how to spin plates, use hula hoops and juggle scarves and balls, among other skills. She stresses, however, that Joy Now is not about creating future members of Cirque du Soleil so much as creating future citizens of a happier world.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is teach these kids self-expression through art,” she says. “If we create a craving for learning, there’s so much reward for them. ... They might be a rock star on the hula hoop but not know how to spin plates. But perfecting that skill doesn’t matter as much as picking it up and being willing to try it versus never picking it up because they don’t do it perfectly the first time.”

She adds children and teenagers don’t even have to perform if they don’t want to. For example, she says, one 5-year-old boy at a camp did not participate for weeks because he was smaller than most of the other kids and painfully shy. However, toward the end of camp, he finally broke out of his shell.

“One day he went over and picked up this bright red, shiny hula hoop and just started rockin’ it,” she says with a chuckle. “By the end of the semester ... he was all too happy to get up on stage and show everybody how he could do that hula hoop.”

She adds that Joy Now emphasizes a collaborative, as opposed to competitive, environment.

“I want them to draw ideas from each other and work together.”

For example, she says, one of her boy students was struggling with the fact a girl was better than he was on stilts. She spent time talking with him about the fact the girl had had a lot more practice than he had and that he should focus on practicing the skill himself and not worry about others being better than he was.

She was pleasantly surprised when she asked all the students at the end of one day to praise each other. The boy responded that he was “really proud” of the girl whom he had originally envied.

“He redirected that energy into being happy for a friend,” she says.