Circus troupe turns fire into art

Every fall, Barefoot Monkeys puts on a performance for students and their visiting families. The show delights all, combining acrobatics, fire art and detailed choreograpnhy. It is an absolute must-see for every VC student. / Courtesy of Hannah Benton

As we meander through the semester, the end of September is always marked by assignments picking up their pace, readings being left unfinished and an action-packed Families Weekend. However, the very thought of Families Weekend is incomplete without The Barefoot Monkeys’ annual Fire Show. On Saturday, Sept. 16, Vassar’s one and only circus arts troupe presented their highly anticipated fall performance.

Known for their repertoire of skillful stunts and ingenious acrobatics, the Monkeys captivated the massive gathering of people on the residential quad as they spun, juggled and danced with a diverse range of props that were united in one common factor: they were all on fire.

Choreographed to a selection of old rock songs, pop and dance music, with many of the lyrics being fire-themed, the Monkeys expertly navigated hoops, spun poi and twirled staffs that burned bright and dazzled onlookers.

Whether they individually juggled props or playfully partnered up and swung actual balls of fire at each other, they did so with a baffling level of synchronization that never failed to blow the audience away. We gasped and cheered as the performers traced rings of fiery flames along the grass and spun burning hula-hoops around their waists.

 When asked about her favorite part of the show, group member Kaya Deuser ’20 commented that she was particularly enthused about the rock music pieces: “They have very boyband-themed choreography that basically entails overacting and being super exaggerated and excited. You just dance and have a blast and you try to make the audience feel the excite- ment that you feel.”

Watching the Barefoot Monkeys is always an experience of downright awe intermingled with anxious disbelief; after all, they are playing with fire. But as daunting as performing in the group may seem, many of the members seem to share a common experience of overcoming fear and feeling exhilarated.

Deuser explained, “Being in the Monkeys, you’re so active, and you’re learning new things with people who teach you and mentor you, that you just start to feel happier and more confident in all aspects of your life. You feel so proud in the moment when you finally master something you’ve been working on, be it balance, body control spinning poi or just using fire for the first time.”

Comparable to Deuser’s experience, a new member of the Monkeys, Meeraal Zaheer ’20, commented on her experience so far. She said, “It really puts me out of my comfort zone. Being part of an entertainment and performance group like this brings a rush of adrenaline I felt like I kind of lacked last semester. It’s just crazy that it’s been two weeks of learning a new toy and one week of spinning it on fire and I’m already in a show. I’m really excited to see where I’ll end up at the end of the year.”

Moreover, the group takes fire safety very seriously. They have extensive and thorough procedures that address fire usage. In addition to safety talks, each time a member wants to attempt a new move or stunt involving fire, they have to be cleared by the “Keepers of the Flame,” who are responsible for fire safety, before they are allowed to do so. In fact, even before entering tech week, members need to successfully and safely carry off a particular stunt on fire at least three times to be allowed to perform it in the show.

Pictured here is one of the group’s fire acts, but the show also features several non-fire- related performance pieces that are just as successful in capturing the crowd’s attention. / Courtesy of Hannah Benton

Headkeeper of the Flame Wenfang Zhou ’18 asserted, “For us, their safety is our first priority; if we feel they are shaky on their fire use, no matter how much they may want to perform on fire, we simply can’t allow it.”

Zhou continued, “People do often get burned, but it’s nothing serious; usually just hair getting singed or minor scalding. In fact, each year we get a surprising number of pyrophobic people. I swear they are really, really scared of fire when they join, and we help some of them get over it.”

Zhou stressed that he didn’t want new members to be daunted because the group truly does everything they can to mentor and help out anyone who gets involved. He insisted that with active involvement and practice, an incoming member with zero experience would be able to do almost every move in the Monkeys’ repertoire by the middle of their second year in the group.

Zaheer, as a new addition, corroborates Zhou’s words on mentorship: “My experience has been amazing – I’ve been a part of the group for two weeks and everyone is great – they’re super relaxed and so willing to help you out. They really try to make you feel at home and put in a real effort to get to know everyone – it’s really casual. Sometimes, when you’re struggling to learn something new it can be hard to ask for help, but I’ve never really experienced that with the Barefoot Monkeys.”

Even if you have no experience and are scared of performing with fire, this inclusive group is confident that it can find a place for you. They pride themselves on truly being a community. / Courtesy of Hannah

The group is extremely accessible for non- fire users as well. Being first and foremost a Circus Arts troupe, the Barefoot Monkeys are inclusive of all acrobatics that their capabilities and equipment will allow.

“If people really do not want to try out fire, that’s completely fine. There’s more than enough to do in the Monkeys that doesn’t in- volve that,” explained Zhou. “In fact, straight off the bat, new members can try out pretty much anything as soon as they join, apart from fire and balancing.”

Perhaps an example of the extensive opportunities this group has to offer is that during the Fire Show, there were several partner dances that didn’t involve fire – and audiences were just as mesmerized by the grace balance, and acrobatics of the performers as they lifted and spun their partners high above the ground. The group proves that they do not need fire in order to captivate an audience.

Currently, the Barefoot Monkeys have around 70 active members, 43 of whom performed on Saturday. Seven new members signed up this year, but the Monkeys hope to have many more first-years and even upperclassmen join them after watching the Fire Show. As Deuser noted, “We’re a community, at the end of the day. We want people to join us so that they can find themselves and find their people.”

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