Most communities are lucky to have a dance studio, but Portsmouth takes that one step-touch further. Not only does the region have several classes for art and dance, but it brandishes an impressive circus arts studio that has served the community long enough that a second generation of students are enrolling to learn the unique craft.
The studio has a history of deeply integrating students who have spent years dedicating their lives to the art by employing them, but now the studio witnessing children of former students enrolling is bringing a whole new dynamic to what they call a family.
Founder and Director Pegi Wilkes says that witnessing her students raise children of their own and insisting they try the study is the greatest compliment she has ever received.
Today, Taylor Sparks is 30 and has been involved in Cirque since 2002, when she was only eight. She joined after her father passed away and used the studio to keep her mind clear, but quickly fell in love with the art and people.
“I stayed because of family,” Sparks said. “Cirque is family to me,” Sparks said. “I even moved to Austin, Texas and my daughter was enrolled in gymnastics, but it wasn’t the same so I moved back, because I wanted my daughter to grow up in circus.”
Sparks’ daughter is now five and has been involved in circus for two years.
“We don’t compete here; we just put on shows, so no kid feels left out. We don’t go out and win medals at big competitions, although we could,” Sparks said. “We give kids all the same opportunity to perform and kids are all treated the same to earn the same stage time.”
Sparks is employed by Cirque as one of Wilkes’ assistant directors, which is a role she has assumed since returning from Austin.
“It’s teamwork, that’s for sure; there is a team of us assistants. I love it,” Sparks said. “Whenever I was in Austin, I actually called Pegi and told her, ‘Pegi, I’m coming home,’ and she was so excited. Actually, the day after I returned, I was already working. I arrived from the airport, unpacked, and came home to work.”
Sparks also reflected on the personal development circus has provided her.
“I’ve gained so much confidence by performing in Cirque d’Art and I’ve been given so many opportunities,” Sparks said. “I’ve done Talented and Gifted while I was in school and I performed with Cirque des Ami when they visited the Vern Riffe Center, which was awesome, because they’re a professional circus troupe.”
Sparks said she has two younger sons and she plans on enrolling them as well, because she views Cirque as a family business. She also explained that she wants her kids to grow up with Wilkes as an influence, because of the impact and lessons she taught so many of Sparks’ peers.
“It is funny, because Pegi has this motto, ‘You can’t fall off if you’re holding on,’ and that’s very true. She drills that in all of her students’ heads. That is with all of your life skills, too, not just with trapeze or scaffolding or on a hoop,” Sparks said. “You can’t fall off if you’re holding on. That includes college, life, bad times, and so much more.”
Not only do students feel like family to Wilkes, but her students feel like family to her.
“Pegi is definitely family to me,” Sparks said. “She has been my second mom since I can remember. Her and Trisha, actually. My mom even views them the same way; they are my second moms.”
Wilkes has been teaching circus nearly her entire lifetime, with her own career in circus being a success. She loves being an educator, though, and is moved by watching people like Taylor enroll her daughter Stormi.
“I have a lot of emotions invested in kids of kids who have been in my program. Especially the teenagers who spent a lot of time with me growing up and feel comfort enough and the program was of value enough, to bring their own children into the program,” Wilkes said. “I have to admit, there is a soft spot in my heart for the second-generation students. I love all of the kids in my program, but they are special to me for sure.”
Wilkes has a longstanding history in circus arts, but this is the first time she’s witnessed a second generation of students enrolling in a program she directs.
“I taught a program in Florida for 20 years, but I never got a second-generation student, so this is the first time that I have the luxury of having someone who I’ve played a role in teaching trust me with their own children,” Wilkes explained.
Wilkes views the continuation of circus families as a testament to her program’s success.
“I find it very interesting dynamic to look out and see who is sitting in the bleachers of the parent area. It is very interesting to see their faces and their little children’s faces and make the connection. I think it speaks of the success of the program, because I can think of no greater compliment than a parent who has been in this program to choose this place as a place to trust their children,” Wilkes said. “It is a compliment to the program and speaks a lot about continuing the program, for, I hope, another generation.”
While the work is long and hard, Wilkes loves it, because of the dynamic of family fostered within the program.
“Circus is family. They pull together as a team with the friendships they make. I have a kid from every school system, and these are very deep, abiding friendships they’d never make without circus,” Wilkes reflected. “They wouldn’t have even met each other, because they go to different schools and I love seeing that, because they’re breaking down their comfort zones. That’s what circus is about— w’re bringing everyone in and making them feel comfortable, at ease, and sharing love for one another in a big family atmosphere.”
Cirque d’Art Theatre is a non-profit performing arts instructional program, offering sliding-scale tuition and scholarship opportunities for local participants. Funding from the Scioto Foundation, Scioto County Commissioners, and Southern Ohio Medical Center make the tuition assistance program possible.
Reach Joseph Pratt at (740) 353-3101, by email at [email protected], © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved