Barefoot Monkeys strive for poi-fection through inclusivity

“You can be as involved or as uninvolved as you want to be and you’ll still be a part of the club ... anyone can be a Barefoot Monkey,” said President Jessie Prutisto-Chang ’18./ Courtesy of Fate Syewoangnuan

This past Sunday, Apr. 15, the Barefoot Monkeys’ Spring Show performance dazzled with fire, props (the professional term is toys), music and choreography. The Spring Show was one of four major shows the Barefoot Monkeys perform annually. A typical show consists of around 20 acts and 35–55 participants.

The Barefoot Monkeys refer to themselves as a circus and fire arts group, but they are aware that they do not conform to just one idea of what circus is. Vice President Liat Kugelmass ’18 explained, “In Europe, they have developed a much more contemporary idea of circus. It’s not as much of the showy showman kind of thing—it’s a lot more focused on artistic style and performance. I think we blend a little more into that than we do into the clowning and the big-ring circus.”

Referring to specific differences between the Monkeys’ style and that of traditional circus, President Jessie Prutisto-Chang ’18 acknowledged the difficulty in labeling their diverse work: “The common conception of circus has stuff like acrobats and trapeze artists. We definitely are a circus in some sense, but not in the traditional sense necessarily. Like hula hoops are very circus-y, juggling is also very circus-y, but poi (a ball at the end of a string) is something you don’t see in a circus as often … a lot of people refer to this as flow arts instead of circus, but it’s a big messy territory of stuff.”

Media Coordinator Fate Syewoangnuan ’18 clarified how these small-scale decisions, such as which toys to use, are connected to the modality and purpose of the show in the bigger picture: “There are different toys and they have different feels to them. They visually represent themselves differently. Juggling tends to be a less serious activity, but you could do something a lot more dance-y with something like poi or staff and [they tie] a lot into the theme. The themes can be more aesthetic, like our last theme of Seasons, or more story-driven, like Alice in Wonderland.”

With all the possible combinations of toys and ambiances, the org’s performances vary drastically. Kugelmass commented, “Our indoor shows tend to have themes and stories usually… the outdoor shows are just fire and we’re just doing fire to be as cool as we can try to be. The indoor shows have a lot of room for people to bring a little bit more creativity in how they present circus because you don’t have the wow factor that the fire does.”

Prutisto-Chang, Syewoangnuan and Kugelmass all described their org as goofy, light-hearted and fun, and emphasized that anyone is welcomed to join, as the org is not audition-based. Everyone’s roles and levels of commitment are individualized. Most of their members, including the aforementioned org leaders, had no performing experience whatsoever prior to joining the club.

That being said, the org provides opportunities for professional performers as well. The Barefoot Monkeys are prominent among colleges and in the circus community. Prutisto-Chang mentioned their annual circus convention (which will not be held this year due to budgetary issues) titled “Monkey See, Monkey Do.” The first collegiate convention of its kind, “Monkey See, Monkey Do” attracts people from all over the country to hold, teach and attend workshops. Many past members of the org have gone on to pursue careers in the circus industry. Kugelmass listed some examples: One alum opened up her own aerial studio, others have gone on to work in distinguished performance groups like Ringling Brothers Circus. Several Vassar alumnae/i even formed their own circus and fire art group, A Different Spin, and began performing professionally in the Arlington community since 2006. In addition, the Barefoot Monkeys have made concerted efforts to become more aware of cultural sensibilities. In the past, for example, the group chose a Western fairytale theme for one of their performances, which did not sit well with those who thought non-Western cultures were underrepresented. Prutisto-Chang revealed that the group’s name, often shortened to just Monkeys, has been criticized for not being inclusive to people of color. The interviewees, all members of the Executive Board, are committed to being inclusive and tackling this issue. However, they are aware that the re-branding process is a difficult one to navigate, considering that they would need to completely alter the design of their merchandise attached to the Barefoot Monkeys’ name.

Prutisto-Chang highlighted that potential members can find the prospect of joining intimidating: “At first, you look at the stuff we do and you can’t even wrap your head around how it’s happening. And I know when I first came here I assumed people who were sophomores were seniors because they seemed to be so good at everything. I was like, ‘Oh, it must have taken you three years to learn how to do that.’ They’re like, ‘No, I learned how to do it in a week or two.’ It’s definitely not as hard as it looks.”

For those who are hesitant to join, Syewoangnuan knows of many members who felt similarly and empathizes from personal experience as well: “You think, well, I probably can’t do [the shows] but I’ll show up anyway because these people seem friendly. Then you just end up staying. I’ve also heard people say that fire is really intimidating, but after you do your first show, it’s a very addicting experience.” If you’re looking to get hooked on fire shows or have fun with a silly group of people, contact them at announce. or find them on the quad on Wednesday and Friday afternoons.

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