ST. LOUIS — When looking for a way to bring together children of different races, religions and financial means, most people don't think of juggling, tumbling and aerial acts as their "go-to" tools.
Jessica Hentoff does.
Hentoff, 53, is the executive and artistic director of a circus school run out of the City Museum in St. Louis. She brings together children who normally wouldn't cross paths and unifies them through circus training and performances.
One effort, Circus Salaam Shalom, trained Jewish and Muslim children at the same time. Far East Meets Midwest combined Asian and Midwestern arts in its shows. And Peace through Pyramids allows St. Louis and Israeli children, both Jewish and Arab, to perform together in the U.S. and overseas.
The Arts and Education Council of St. Louis will honor Hentoff on Jan. 26 as its Arts Innovator of the Year. Prior to that, on Jan. 16, she'll speak in Monaco at the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo about her commitment to "social circus" — her work using circus arts as a way to encourage social change.
"Here, they can define who they are. This is where they choose who they are and what they can do," Hentoff said.
Hentoff, who grew up in New York City, didn't even climb a tree until she was 10. But while a student at Purchase College at the State University of New York, she began taking classes in circus skills in 1973, learning about tumbling, fire-eating, clowning and the like.
"It was so amazing that I could actually juggle; I could hang 20 feet in the air," she said.
She began working with circuses, the first being Circus Kingdom, which gave regular performances but always put on shows for people who couldn't come to the circus by visiting nursing homes, prisons or hospitals.
"That was social circus, using circus for something other than pure entertainment," she said.
Hentoff traveled with other circuses and continued her studies with other performers. She and another woman, Kathie Hoyer, who was from St. Louis, created a double trapeze act around 1980. They began to work with Circus Flora, a one-ring show that became based out of St. Louis in 1987.
Hentoff's students still work with Circus Flora, but in 2001 that circus stopped offering circus classes to focus on shows, she said. Hentoff started a new nonprofit, the Circus Day Foundation, to provide a place for a circus school now called Circus Harmony and the St. Louis Arches, a group of intermediate to advanced child performers trained in circus skills.
City Museum in St. Louis offers weekend circus shows during the school year and during the week over the summer and during school holidays.
The eclectic museum, created by artist Bob Cassilly, teems with mosaics, sculpted caves to explore, slides to barrel down, even a massive outdoor playground where kids climb through tunnels, towers, suspended airplanes and a fire engine.
During a recent visit to the circus ring and rehearsal space inside the museum, a handful of black and white students who were a combination of private-school, public-school and home-schooled children, prepared for their biggest show of the year, "Cafe Appassionato," running Jan. 24, 25, 31 and Feb. 1.
Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan, 17, a Webster Groves resident, put her feet and ankles up on blocks and then went into a split, an exercise to focus on her rather superhuman-looking flexibility.
Meanwhile, Melvin Diggs, 16, and Terrance Robinson, 15, of St. Louis, rehearsed a routine with one of Hentoff's three children, 12-year-old Kellin Hentoff-Killian, where they balanced and juggled brightly colored wooden plates.
Hentoff said the teens learn a lot more than the circus arts in their training. She talks to them about how they present themselves to others, about how one skill builds on another or to try again when they mess something up.
"When you flip, fly and juggle, you learn things like focus, persistence, teamwork," she said.
On one trip, children from the St. Louis program have gone to Israel to perform with Jewish and Arab children with the Galilee Circus in Israel. This past summer, a group of those children came to St. Louis. While there are language barriers at times, Hentoff said those are usually overcome once the children rehearse and perform together. Circus acts, she notes, rely on trust.
Kuciejczyk-Kernan said young people didn't set out to discuss differences, but she said she tried on a Muslim girl's head scarf, and had talks with young people who had lived through war. She felt she made new friends. "It's devastating when they leave. Hopefully, we'll see them next year."
Work is under way to raise about $50,000 to take American children back to Israel next year for another visit.
Hentoff described shows involving Jewish teens from Karmiel and the Arab village of Dir el-Assad and her American students, many of whom had never previously been on an airplane.
The combination, she said, made an impression on circus audiences during their two weeks in Israel.
"The kids in the front rows were laughing, but there were adults behind them with tears streaming down their faces," she said.