Jennifer Dempsey is founder and director of Colorado’s own Salida Circus. For nearly four decades she’s been performing as an acrobat, stilt walker, unicyclist, knife juggler, and trapeze artist under big tops from Belfast to London, New York to California.
Dempsey got her first taste of circus life as a third grader at Oak View Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia. Her PE teacher, a circus aficionado named Jim Moyer, used to keep the gym open after school in order to teach kids the fine points of unicycling, juggling, plate spinning, acrobatics, contortion, stilt walking, and trapeze. They got so good at it that they began receiving invitations to perform all over DC. “It was uninhibited, raw fun,” Dempsey remembers. “Playful, energetic, non-competitive; just a total joy. I call it the Oak View Feeling, and it’s a vital part of why I do circus today.”
Dempsey may have wandered away from that feeling as a teen, but it was always there, just beneath the surface. In 1989 she was accepted as an exchange student at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland. (Belfast? Ireland? “I’ve got dual citizenship,” she explains.)
One day on her way to her Irish Lit class, she happened to see a notice pinned to a tree outside the Student Union Building. It was an advertisement for circus workshops at a local Catholic church. She tried not to look at it, and did her best not to think about it during class.
As part of their course work, Jennifer and her classmates were reading a book called The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. “It was about a spinster who failed to do her own thing out of a simple lack of courage,” Dempsey says. “Reading that book I realized I didn’t want to be a student. What I really wanted was to join the circus. The Oak View Feelings were just too strong in me. To this day I thank Judith Hearne for turning me around.”
After class, she went to the church and walked into a scene of utter pandemonium. “There were kids everywhere,” she says. “Kids on unicycles. Kids on stilts. Balls flying through the air. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
Launched in 1984, the Belfast Community Circus was — is — more than just a school for circus wannabes. It’s a government subsidized community-building tool designed to bring Protestant and Catholic youth together on neutral turf. Dempsey signed on as a volunteer tutor, and began performing professionally with the troupe as a stilt walker and acrobat. Despite the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, she stayed for 12 years, in 1993 becoming the outfit’s Artistic Director.
In February 2007, Dempsey moved to Salida to be close to her mother. “I was 38, and part of me thought I’d outgrown the circus,” she says. “But circus people are my family and I missed them. So I started the circus workshop in Salida. I know wherever there’re kids, there’ll be interest.”
She got that right. Modeled after the program in Belfast, her trainings attract some 300 kids a year. Her weekly workshop for adults has evolved into a troupe of ten professional performers. And then there’s Circus Over Sixty, a whacked out bunch of seniors who entertain at nursing homes and senior centers all over Central Colorado.
“Circus injects the Oak View Feeling into an audience and brings it out in individuals,” Dempsey says. “It’s the spirit of pure joy. That’s why it attracts so many people. Life is too short not to be joy filled. If I worried about money I could never have done this. I’m richer now than I ever thought I could be.”
Salida Circus on YouTube
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