Creative chaos: Barefoot Monkeys’ experience in COVID times

Flames whip through the air. The heat of unruly licks of fire reaches for the audience’s faces as they gasp and shout in awe. As campus life withered in March, so did the glowing embers of the Barefoot Monkeys (BM), Vassar’s circus and fire arts organization. After their 2020 spring show was canceled due to the College’s shutdown, the leaders of the organization were determined to put on their annual Fall Fire Show. 

Not surprisingly, BM has been Vassar’s only circus and fire arts troupe since its founding in the mid-1990s. BM members perform acrobatics, general circus arts like juggling and, of course, their signature fire arts. They can often be seen spinning poles lit on either end with flames on the quad. Typically, there are four shows per year—two indoor acrobatic shows and two outdoor fire shows. The 60-member organization meets twice per week, with varying combinations of members showing up to each practice. The practices serve as both rehearsals and a place for team members to test out circus equipment, play board games and enjoy each other’s presence. 

The Miscellany News sat down with the BM president Chelsea Sheldon ’22 and Vice President Spencer McGrath ’21. About ten yards away, a group of BM members played Bananagrams on a blanket while several others absentmindedly spun hula-hoops and long poles. Sheldon, unfazed by the antics of her org members, spoke about the Barefoot Monkeys in the era of COVID-19. Determined to lead a successful year for BM, she had sent a 23-page document to the administration about sanitizing equipment and adjusting safety protocols. “Fire shows are always a big safety commitment, and this year we had to also consider how we can keep both our small community but also the entire Vassar community safe,” Sheldon said. McGrath, when asked about the differences between this year’s performance and past ones, explained, “[Acrobatics were] not a possibility this year because it consists of so many partner acts. We call the acrobats the Keepers of the Mat. This year, they are leading workshops and working on individual tricks.”

Sheldon’s smile did not falter as she expressed how proud she was of the Fall Fire Show that took place on Oct. 13: “Overall, there were growing pains and things we are excited to change in the spring, but I am super happy that we got to have a show. The one thing that was a really big plus is that livestreaming is really valuable—we are going to keep doing that in future shows, even when we can have an audience. Our families could all watch it and we could even save the chat, which was a gift to watch back.” The virtual format also made the show more accessible, and many BM alumnae/i attended the virtual event—one of whom logged on all the way from France. 

When asked whether the virtual performance could capture the adrenaline of live moving flames for the audience, Sheldon shook her head. “I’d say there was less awe and more excitement,” she shared. However, she also noted, “Everyone who came was happy that we were able to do this. It was a very different feeling, but the intensity was the same.” McGrath chimed in, saying, “For the parents it was incredible—they usually don’t come, so there was the added factor of ‘I’ve never seen this before,’ which really raised our enthusiasm for the night.” 

The club leaders then reflected on how being a part of this org has shaped their time at Vassar. Sheldon did not miss a beat and confessed, “I’m highly biased, but I love this org. It’s a really fun group of people who are excited to create art but also just coexist in the same space. I was lucky enough to get cornered at the org fair in my freshman year. I remember being blown away at my luck for stumbling upon this group. That mindset has continued. We are a group of people who love this creative chaos, and I am so grateful for it.” 

McGrath, nodding along to Sheldon’s remarks, expanded the discussion: “The dynamics have shifted over the past two years from having a majority of white members to the exec board having a large representation of POC members, and within the club we are having these discussions. If you are a chaotic being, and even if you aren’t, you will find your space here. And circus forces you to be comfortable in your own body, which has helped a lot of us.”

The Miscellany News concluded the interview by asking Sheldon and McGrath the question that has been on everyone’s minds since they first saw the spinning flames at Vassar: No, they cannot make s’mores on the carcinogenic twirling flames. That’s an org for another time.

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