Youth from Chicago, Indonesia communicate through the language of the circus

SHARE Youth from Chicago, Indonesia communicate through the language of the circus

CircEsteem performed at Windy City Ribfest in June. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Shrieks pierced the air at the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Uptown — but not shrieks of joy or fear.

These kids were just clowning around.

Boisterous exclamations and exaggerated movements are part of the trade for the Chicago clowns of CircEsteem and the Indonesian clowns of The Red Nose Foundation. The two social circuses have joined forces this summer for a Chicago tour, and though neither group speaks the other’s language, you couldn’t tell by watching their act.

“You learn to find other ways to communicate,” said 16-year-old Sophie Baker. “It’s a really interesting experience. We bond so much by communicating through circus rather than talking to each other. It’s a stronger bond, I think.”

Sophie is a member of CircEsteem, based in Uptown. It uses circus skills to foster self-esteem, and promote personal development and leadership skills. Dan Roberts, executive director, said the group’s 750 students come from all walks of life across the city.

“We have kids who are refugees, and they are here taking classes with children whose parents are doctors and lawyers and are from the Chicago elite class,” Roberts said. “It’s really beautiful to watch how they can join together here in the circus, and stay friends into adulthood and beyond the program.”

CircEsteem performed at Windy City Ribfest in June. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

CircEsteem performed at Windy City Ribfest in June. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Roberts is also a co-founder of The Red Nose Foundation — a social circus with similar goals, based in Jakarta. Dedy Purwadi, chairman and co-founder of the foundation, said due to living in poverty, many children in the program face discrimination from peers at school. Red Nose gives them confidence and the ability to thrive at school. The foundation’s academic programs help — and learning circus skills gives them a sense of pride.

The two groups have begun an annual cultural exchange. Last summer, 10 CircEsteem members traveled to Jakarta to perform with The Red Nose Foundation, and this summer, nine Red Nose students joined CircEsteem for a Chicago tour that ends Tuesday. Roberts said the reception so far has been overwhelming.

“The moment I get on our microphone and say, “we’re welcoming our guests from Indonesia,” the crowd just goes wild every time,” Roberts said. “I think it’s pretty awesome to see how much folks want to show our guests how welcomed they are here.”

Kasma, a 16-year-old Red Nose student, said she’s enjoyed the tour and how friendly Chicagoans have been. She loves getting to hang out and “be crazy” with the CircEsteem students, and said they’ve become like a second family.

CircEsteem student Eno Kloster, 15, feels the same way. Four of the Indonesian boys are staying at her house, and while it’s been difficult to communicate sometimes, they’ve still managed to become great friends through nonverbal activities like card games and playing music.

For CircEsteem coach Douglas Grew, nothing has been more rewarding than seeing how much the students have bonded. They’ve held big group dinners and added aspects of Indonesian culture into the performances, but most of the friendships and cultural understanding have developed naturally during the students’ free time.

“Every time I’m with them, I’m so blown away at how easy it seems for children to get along,” Grew said. “It’s very uplifting when I see their love of performing together. They can eat different foods, have different religions, speak different languages, but through the circus, they’re able to come together and work together.”

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