Org Spotlight: Barefoot Monkeys talk inclusivity, history

The Barefoot Monkeys have practiced acrobatics, fire play, poi, balancing and circus-style choreography for twenty years. The organization welcomes all students regardless of experience. / Photo courtesy of Alec Ferretti

This is the inaugural article of the weekly feature, “Org of the Week,” in which the Miscellany will shine a spotlight on one of the many clubs in the Vassar community. This week, we’ll be discussing the Barefoot Monkeys (BFM).

Have you ever crossed the quad at night and seen people dancing with fire? Or witnessed someone sauntering in stilts? Your eyes don’t deceive you. It’s the Barefoot Monkeys: Vassar’s only circus-themed club that anyone can join.

Any Wednesday or Friday from 3-6, you can find the Monkeys in the residential quad or the Villard Room for Playtime, where they’ll be working on new acrobatic skills or just playing around and hanging out. There are also opportunities to “spin” fire, weather permitting, and practice balancing during Acro Saturdays in the Walker MPR. BFM’s exec board leads Treehouse, which is their meeting that anyone can attend where they determine policies and general Monkey business. Besides being known for their unbelievable acrobatics, the Monkeys also have a reputation for their thorough safety precautions, ensuring that anyone can defy gravity without breaking their neck or combusting.

Now the President, or Grand Monkey, of BFM Christa Ventresca ’17 described what led her to get involved, “I wasn’t initially planning on joining the Monkeys, but I lived in Strong my freshman year and the Monkeys usually practice on the quad right outside that dorm. So there was one time when I was sitting alone in my room and they were making a ton of noise outside, so I decided to see what the fuss was about. Somehow I got sucked into this club as a result.”

Knowledge in the acrobatic world isn’t necessary either. Many members of BFM started with little to no experience, only a general interest. Anyone can show up to playtime and be welcomed with open arms. Just a few of their activities include contact juggling, spinning staffs, poi and balancing.

Anna Roberts ’20 notes that her favorite activity since joining the Monkeys is balancing: “Basically, two people work together to lift somebody in the air to do cool things. There’s a base and a flier. The base lifts the flier somehow. There are ground balances, high balances and mid-balances. I personally prefer the high ones. They’re more fun, but you do cool things. Some of them are dynamic, like assisted cartwheels, but some of them are lifts, like the one we call ‘Dirty Dancing,’ like the movie. I think the technical term is ‘High Bird on Hands,’ but we just call it ‘Dirty Dancing.’”

No other organization compares to the size of the Monkey community. With an email list boasting over 350 people and too many alumni to count, the Barefoot Monkeys are everywhere. No matter what dorm you live in or city you go off to after college, a member of the Monkey family is there still juggling or spinning poi.

If someone wishes to participate in a non-executive board leadership role, there are also opportunities to choreograph acts in one of the BFM shows. Every year, the Monkeys have two indoor shows and two fire shows in front of Rockefeller Hall. Anybody can suggest an idea for an act and choreograph it. In February, BFM presented “Monkey Sea, Monkey Do” in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater. Acts were centered around a maritime theme and featured routines choreographed by members of every year. There will also by a fire show April 15.

Choreographer for the upcoming fire show Josh Samolchuck ’20 hasn’t finished his first year at Vassar but already has been given the opportunity to choreograph BFM shows. “In the fall indoor show and this spring fire show, I had an idea for an act. I picked a song and arranged the choreography and taught it to the other people who want to be in it. So even as early as the second show, having been on campus for three months, I was still able to get into a leadership position teaching other people choreography.”

Participating in a variety of BFM events over the last four years, Ventresca talked about one of her most exhilarating experiences with the Monkeys. “The first time spinning fire was definitely a huge adrenaline rush, which I love, because it’s super empowering to be like, ‘Oh my God, I’m on fire and not getting hurt. This is great.’ Other than that, I have a lot of great show memories because it’s weird watching a show come together from the very beginning to the very end. It’s super wonderful to see.”

Every show will have many alumni sitting in the audience because one of the integral parts of the Monkeys is their sense of an inclusive community. Many Monkeys form friendships that transcend just hanging out during playtime or show rehearsals, carrying over into meals, classes and even housing.

Near the end of April, BFM hosts an annual “Monkey See, Monkey Do” convention, which holds numerous juggling and fire workshops over the space of a weekend. “Monkey See, Monkey Do” acts as an opportunity for Monkey alumni to reunite and for members to teach the skills they’ve developed. Essentially, the convention is one big playtime.

Now approaching their twentieth year as an org, BFM still has a captivating presence to the Vassar community. Samolchuck spoke about the general acceptance found within the Monkeys: “I don’t think there’s one type of person in the Monkeys. I feel like from the first playtime I went to, I always felt that they were looking for anybody who has interest in learning any of these things. It’s really nice because you don’t need to go in knowing how to do everything. They’re very open to teaching everyone anything they want to know. It’s very relaxed about most things. You come and go as you please.”

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