The Trenton Circus Squad changes lives with acrobatics and a culture of support

"I feel like if I don’t have the circus in my life, I really don’t have anything. That’s how deep it gets for me, if I’m being honest.”

Shekinah Williams was in middle school when she first joined the circus. She had heard her friends “talking about some show,” and, thinking it might just be another typical after-school or church show, thought she’d stop by and check it out.

What she found was anything but typical. There were acrobats, high-line walkers and unicycle riders. Over the coming weeks, coaches with the Trenton Circus Squad (TCS) taught her a variety of skills, but she found a passion and facility for aerial silk—that is, performing acrobatics while suspended on a silk loop. 

Though that certainly meant something to Williams, she also took away something much bigger from her experience with TCS: “Confidence,” she says.

“I was in seventh grade when I started,” Williams says. “I was getting bullied at the time. But there’s something about this program and the people you meet over the years, it just flips your whole life around and you know what you want to do.”

Just as she had been prompted to get involved with TCS, Williams started encouraging her friends, like Tyshaun Thomas, to join.

“We were in the same dance class and she said that she thought I would be a good aerialist and I didn’t know what that meant,” Thomas recalls.  “She said, ‘Do you want to join the circus?’ I told her I’d go but I was lying and I knew it; because it was weird. But eventually she and my other friends dragged me from school to the factory. I went once, and then I came all the time.”

Like Williams, Thomas was immediately attracted to not only the unique physical challenges within the TCS facility, but also to the general connective vibe permeating the space. For a shy kid, the exposure to a group of friendly, supportive people—in the midst of this novel circus environment—was revelatory.

“Generally the people I met on my first day, most of them were people I wouldn’t have spoken to before,” Thomas says. “We got along really fast and we were friends by the end of the day and I’m not a person who goes up and talks to people they don’t know.”

Williams and Thomas were hooked from the get-go, like so many kids in Trenton and the surrounding suburbs that partake in a TCS workshop, either in its facility—”the factory”—or at a school or community center. Now, years after their first exposure to TCS, Williams and Thomas are members of TCS’ traveling Youth Squad, which will host 11 performances (eight of them free) at Cooper’s Poynt Park in Camden from June 30 to July 9.

During the residency, they’ll also hold free workshops for kids to learn circus arts from performers and coaches. The hope by touring TCS outside of Trenton (in an impossible-to-miss purple and yellow tent you can see from Philadelphia) is that kids engage with circus arts and, more importantly, interact with a community of care, support, respect and fun. Because the circus—this one at least—can change lives.

“There are moments with the kids we teach now that make me think about when I was younger,” Thomas says. “When I was a Squad member, I missed maybe a week total of Squad ever. I went every single day; the only days I didn’t, it was only a family reason I couldn’t go. All my friends were always there. It was a routine: School, then circus, then home.”

Williams says TCS has meant, “Everything. Honestly. Like I feel like if I don’t have the circus in my life, I really don’t have anything. That’s how deep it gets for me, if I’m being honest.”

Tom von Oehsen first ran away to the circus after high school several decades ago. He had been trying to make it as an actor in New York City, when a fellow performer mentioned a flier calling for enrollment in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Clown College.

“I said, ‘Haha, very funny’… No, I’m an actor,” von Oehsen says, feigning drama. But he looked at the flier, saw elephant riding and slapstick comedy, and thought it might be a fit.

Von Oehsen moved on from the circus… kind of. He became an admissions officer, but held a two-week circus camp, “to keep him sane.” But he soon realized that the circus carried much more weight than the silk robes holding up aerial performers. 

“When I added the service component, the civic engagement component of the program, the kids couldn’t get enough of it. And they wanted to keep coming back and relive that experience. That’s not typical of a community service project; most kids are looking at the clock saying, ‘OK, I got my hours done.’ That told me we had something unusual and unique, and I could do this full time,” Von Oehsen says. So he ran away to the circus, again.

What started as a two-week camp turned into TCS. Every weekday, kids aged 12-19 are welcome to stop by after school and stay as late as 8 p.m. while they work on their circus skills, do homework and/or college prep work, eat dinner and hang out with a supportive community. Each 11-week session ends with two public performances. They also work with kids 5-12 years old who come from various civic organizations and schools for workshops. In total, hundreds of kids come through TCS every week. And it’s all completely free.

Von Oehsen says he can see kids transform before his eyes during their time with TCS.

“Our goal is to always teach them one skill. Any new youth that walks through the door, we teach one skill to and then get them in front of an audience as quickly as possible, get them applause and laughter. That’s when you actually see the body change, their spirit change, when they feel that love and joy from an audience,” von Oehsen says. “And then whey they look around and see the skill development of the other Squad [members], it motivates them, because they see the reaction these kids get. There’s always this growth we see once the kids have the initial experience of being acknowledged for their skills.”

For as much public validation as performances bring, Williams says the real change that completing challenging circus acts provides comes from within.

“It’s mostly not even physical, that’s the secret. It’s really mental,” she says. “If you believe in yourself, you’re going to do it and you’re gonna get better. And if you keep doubting yourself, you’re not gonna progress, not in this type of work.”

Williams admits, at first, she wasn’t great at many of the circus skills TCS teaches. But Williams met lead coach Karen Ladd in 2019, who helped her progress on aerials.

“She was happy and confident about teaching me and that made me feel good. I feel like if it’s a great teacher, then I feel great about what I’m doing,” Williams says.

Thomas adds that Ladd helped with his social skills—soft-spoken, Thomas says Ladd taught him to project his voice, and to make eye contact, which he then is able to practice in live performances. Certainly it’s a benefit to the quality of the circus to have engaging performers with command of their verbal and non-verbal communication; but it’s also a tremendous benefit to the person who learns this skill via the circus and can apply it to their everyday life.

TCS, of course, provides access to this kind of support, but similar sports and activities don’t necessarily include everyone who could benefit from the structure, joy and support they provide.

“I come from the world of gymnastics, which is really expensive and strict and there’s no creative freedom,” says Ladd. “And I also grew up doing gymnastics at a Boys and Girls Club. Being a coach at a place knowing I can coach the whole person rather than the skills, and provide access to a sport that is less about competition and more about working together, I was really sold.” 

What’s very obvious is that even though TCS has its civic engagement component and provides critical after-school care for kids, many of whom may not have the best home life, the work done to help grow young people is often an ancillary benefit to the fun participants have. That is, though the community and coaches at TCS do change kids, it’s more a byproduct of the culture and not, necessarily, the result of targeted outreach. Kids will grow and stay safe, and maybe not even realize it until years later.

“There are some explicit support services that TCS provides, but I think also it’s just they’re there everyday,” says coach Natasha Shatzkin, who was one of the first TCS coaches. “It’s just kind of a consistent thing that’s a place to be with stuff to do and nice people. I think it’s a nice, subtle way to have people grow, because you’re just there. A lot of circus stuff forces you into doing teamwork and having to think about other people, and if you want to make a show happen, maybe you’re in three acts, but the other 10 acts you’re still doing something and you have to make it happen if it’s going to work. I think it slowly gets you there.”

The coaching staff at TCS also includes several junior coaches, mostly former TCS members who take on a leadership role before moving on to becoming a full coach, or using that experience to find similar work elsewhere. You might liken the junior coaches to camp counselors; older kids and young adults who can casually mentor kids and more easily relate to their challenges.

“The junior coaches, they were easier to be your friends,” says Thomas. “You have a head coach and then a junior coach, this middle point between Squad members. They’re more relatable, they’re younger, and most of the time they were in your spot at some point and they’re someone you can look up to.”

Kordell Garland was a junior coach, and recently was hired as a regular coach by TCS. Before that though, he was just another kid who found a home at TCS—even if getting there was a little unusual.

“[Von Oehsen] came to my house and talked to my camp counselor and next thing I know, he was asking me if I could join the circus. And I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and then came the next day,” Garland says. “I just made a lot of friends very quick and a lot of my friends were there as well, a lot of kids I went to school with. It was a great atmosphere when I went there.”

“I felt like Coach K,” von Oehsen jokes. Most of the kids who stay in TCS first access the program through a workshop, but as with Garland, there are exceptions where coaches and staff will reach out to kids who they think might benefit from the TCS community, and vice versa.

“Sometimes I recruit kids not because they’re good at anything at all but because they’re good at getting all of their friends’ attention and they’re basically performing,” Ladd says. “They’ve been labeled a bad kid at school because they’re always performing, and I’m like, we need you. 

“There are a lot of people that our program becomes home for, and we are like that lifeline,” Ladd adds.

Shekinah Williams and Tyshaun Thomas are only 19, but they’re already looking to a future in circus and performing arts. That might be the legacy of TCS; the change that it inspires from kids who went through its programs.

“I want to have a school that teaches dance and circus to kids; kids of color [in particular] because with Circus Squad, I did a lot of traveling and I got to experience how the circus industry has a lot of white people all the time,” Thomas says. “When you go to the festivals, there’s like three other black people, then the TCS. As a dancer I always knew that, because it’s super expensive and training costs a lot of money. I guess I just want to let it be accessible to people.”

Adds Williams: “This program actually helped me figure what I want to do in my life, and they actually opened doors for me, like I’m going to Ithaca, New York, soon to start circus there and that’s only because of TCS. And to be an African-American woman doing it, it is challenging sometimes, but I think that’s what gives me a drive actually.” 

Von Oehsen originally started the program in Princeton, but quickly realized it wasn’t having as much societal impact as it would if it was in Trenton. It was hard to get suburban kids to come to Trenton—“There’s still a portion of the suburbs community of families that think if you go to Trenton, you’ll be shot. Which is sad because they prevent their kids from coming and doing stuff. Luckily, that percentage seems to be declining.”  

It’s one reason why TCS travels (though, to be clear, plenty of kids come to TCS from all over Mercer County): to expose kids to their community and to connect kids with others they normally would not cross paths with. “It’s really enriching all the kids’ lives to be with such a diverse group—the socioeconomic diversity, the emotional diversity,” von Oehsen says.

That creates a level of openness unique to school-age children. Kids are largely bound by what their parents, location and socioeconomic status dictates, but TCS shatters those fetters. The result is kids who know more about their peers and the world around them.

“It’s the benefit of creating a very safe environment, and it starts with keeping them safe when they’re doing their skills,” von Oehsen says. “If they feel safe there, then they feel emotionally safe and they start opening up and having these conversations.”

TCS shut down for four months, like the rest of the world, in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic. While the space remained empty, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered, and demonstrations ensued across the country, including in Trenton. So when TCS members came back, they had a lot to talk about, and they ultimately performed two concert fundraisers with content they created themselves that spoke to their feelings on social justice issues. For von Oehsen, it was gratifying to see the conversations TCS participants were starting and engaging in on their own accord, and to see the action those conversations inspired.

“I realized everything we’d done to that point in our time had built and gotten them to a point where they wanted to be advocates,” von Oehsen says. “They wanted to get out there and feel like they had to do something, and what they wanted to do was engage other youth and talk about this stuff and they were using their circus arts to engage youth and as an ice breaker to engage. That’s what led to this tour; let’s go to all the cities and engage all the youth in New Jersey.”

Which is what they’re doing in Camden this weekend and next; the fifth such trip to Camden in the last six years, but the first with the big tent. Already, there’s buzz in Camden from the tent; TCS members hardly go a couple hours without someone walking up and asking what’s going on.

“People are noticing,” says Camden County Commissioner Al Dyer. “I’m getting texts, people calling me, ‘What’s the big purple and gold tent at the Waterfront?’ The folks that have visited in years past, they’re expecting a different and more dynamic show. That tent is creating a buzz in the city.” 

Once they’re there, coaches Shatzkin and Garland say guests should expect a show that evokes not the typical, traditional circus connotations, but instead a show that reflects the unique communal spirit and flow of everything TCS has built over the years.

“If you have no circus background, it’s exciting to see the show,” Shatzkin says. “But if you have a circus background, TCS has a personality that no other circus squad has. There are lots of amazing circus shows—Is TCS the most polished one? Never. But does it have the most life to it? Yeah.”

“And soul,” Garland adds. “And culture.”

TCS will host eight free performances at Cooper’s Poynt Park in Camden from June 30 to July 4, plus three paid shows on July 8 and 9. Tickets are available for $15 per person. Audiences are recommended to purchase tickets or register in advance online. For more on TCS, go here.