The Barefoot Monkeys

Most Vassar students recognize the sight. They walk on the Residential Quad, near Ballantine Field or into the Villard Room and see some of their fellow classmates juggling, spinning fire or doing acrobatics. A common presence on campus since the mid 1990s the Barefoot Monkeys established themselves as a Vassar staple in the 21stcentury. Known primarily for their bi-annual fire show, the Barefoot Monkeys also offer two indoor shows, in November and February, and have led seven on-campus circus and flow-arts conventions called “Monkey See Monkey Do.” The group signifies something greater than their events, as the Barefoot Monkeys have come to be known for their immediately recognizable “playtime.” The club’s omnipresence on campus made it an extension of Vassar College itself. 

The Barefoot Monkeys trace back to the fall of 1995 when Matt Wilson'99 came to the college. Matt had always been entranced by the circus arts, and his decision to attend Vassar was partly due to a piece of recruiting literature sporting an image of a unicyclist. Matt took up unicycling his freshman year, and by the next year he owned three different unicycles, one of which was six feet high. Matt’s intuitions about Vassar proved correct, as the school already had a strong circus connection. In the late 1980s LGBTQ pioneer activist John Schoonbeck, a psychologist in the Vassar counseling center, owned and ran the Friendly Brothers Circus in the Hudson Valley. In the early 1990s, Bob Greenspun ’91 became the first Vassar graduate to run away and join the circus. By the time Matt arrived on campus, Lorenzo Pisoni ’97 and Jonah Hoyle ‘99 had also matriculated, coming to Vassar to “escape” the circus life in which they had grown up – their parents were co-founders of San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus. This environment inspired Matt Wilson to dive into the world of circus arts. 


In the fall of 1995 Wilson wandered onto the Residential Quad and, like many other freshmen, felt the pull of the jugglers in front of Rockefeller Hall. The group was an offshoot of the Mid-Hudson Jugglers, a consortium founded in 1992 of “a loose affiliation of local jugglers who met regularly to practice new moves, strut their stuff, and learn from each other,” according to the club’s web site.  The group was not directly affiliated with Vassar, but made up of members from the student body and the community at large, such as Ethan Gold ’97 and the club leader, Mid-Hudson juggler Bruce Engholm.


Matt Wilson on his unicycle in front of Rocky, October 1996

Matt Wilson on his unicycle in front of Rocky, October 1996


The group met weekly on Friday evenings in front of Rockefeller Hall and welcomed anyone who cared to join. Bruce taught Matt how to pass juggling clubs, and Matt started to compile an email list hoping to attract more people to their club. Matt’s goal was “to spread juggling awareness” and teach as many people as possible. They performed informally at Founders Day and dorm parties, but they mostly just honed their skills in their Friday sessions. The seeds of what would become the Barefoot Monkeys had been sown. 

In the fall of 1996, the club started to plant its roots and establish its permanence on campus. The club started to have regular attendance at their Friday meetings. The group consisted of a larger Vassar contingent, changing from an offshoot of the Mid-Hudson Jugglers to a Vassar-centric group. On October 13, 1996, the club got VSA approval, under the name Vassar Jugglers, to “get the process started” to receive funding. The group still focused mainly on teaching juggling and informal performances, establishing a foundation and building up resources, awareness and membership.

In 1996 the group came up with their moniker. Inspired by the idea of monkeys possessing “prehensile tails and digits on their hands and feet” and combining it with the idea that “juggling barefoot feels good” the name derived from the stream of consciousness of a college sophomore. 

In the fall of 1997 the Barefoot Monkeys started to hit its stride. The club continued to expand membership, luring as many freshmen to the group as possible like, as Matt recalls, “fire attracting lost freshmen moths.”Alex Smith ’01 and Olivia Lehrman ’01 were two moths who were most influential to the group were. Smith became the second Grand Monkey and solidified the group as a mainstay at Vassar. Lehrman continued with the group throughout her time at Vassar and went on to become a professional acrobat and aerialist. She later worked professionally alongside Matt, continuing the Barefoot Monkey connection post-graduation. 

The troupe expanded their performance schedule, juggling during Octoberfest in October 4, 1997, at Cushing House’s “Marchi Gras” March 27, 1998 and I Won’t Grow Up day on April 4, 1998 where they taught their craft to young children, giving them custom juggling balls as gifts. The group also travelled to New York City to work with circus arts educator Hovey Burgess at NYU, and they used some of their Vassar Student Association money to travel to Yale for a circus convention. The 1997-1998 school year solidified the circus presence on campus and served as the beginning of the modern Barefoot Monkeys. The name became official in the spring of 1998 when they started receiving VSA funding. 


The Bi-annual Fire Show features performances such as this member wielding his fire baton.

The Bi-annual Fire Show features performances such as this member wielding his fire baton.


The Barefoot Monkeys was still a work in progress. Matt stored and maintained the group’s equipment in his dorm room, providing his own collection of unicycles, juggling equipment and diablos for the group to play with.  It was also this year that the group established their fire safety protocol. The college’s Safety and Security would often shut down their meetings due to use of fire, and Matt sought to remedy the situation. Jeff Horst, the college’s director of operations for service response and custodial services, set up a fire juggling protocol that would keep the students and campus safe. The protocols also protected the Barefoot Monkeys and allowed the fire show to become a Vassar staple. 

The group continued to grow in Matt’s senior year, using its VSA funding to expand its scope and to solidify its place on the Vassar campus. Once again entertaining at I Won’t Grow Up Day, they also performed at the local farmers’ market and at Equal Rights Awareness Week on February 24, 1999. These events hardened the group’s skills and also the nature of the troupe as a community. The group continued to grow in size and build on the familial atmosphere fostered by its early members. 

By 2003, the Barefoot Monkeys had increased their practices to twice a week and had expanded into a full circus arts group, growing their repertoire, the Miscellany Newsreported in 2003, to include “fire throwing, unicycling, gymnastics, staff throwing and twirling, and complex juggling routines.” By 2004, the fire show began to become a Barefoot Monkey tradition. As member Elias Repka ’05 said, “The fire-show changes the energy and brings it up. It changes the view of what Vassar represents.” By May 2009 The Barefoot Monkeys, having tripled in size, had become a Vassar institution. Their presence on campus served as a welcoming arm of the college, culminating with the performance of their fire show annually on All Families Weekend.  

Despite times of “rough spots” in intergroup dynamics, the troupe considered itself a family and reflects those familial values. The experience of Grand Monkey Felix Steiny ’09 summarizes this. As a freshman, he did not get along with his roommate and spent most nights sleeping on the then Grand Monkey’s floor. The group took him in and gave him a place where he felt he belonged. He subsequently provided the same helping hand for a freshman when he was Grand Monkey. To Matt Wilson, looking back, it is this aspect of the Barefoot Monkeys that gives him the most pride. 


Sources

The Miscellany News

10/4/96: Unicyclist is universally charming 

11/22/96: Vassar Firsts

3/27/98: Cushing Hosts ‘Marchi Gras’ 

10/10/97: Octoberfest a huge success 

4/10/98: Students and kids say, ‘I Won’t Grow Up!’

4/24/98: Barefoot Monkeys Authorized

4/16/99: I Won’t Grow Up Day ‘99

9/25/98: The groups that keep on giving to the community 

9/10/04: Vassar’s Barefoot Monkeys Organization of August ‘04

5/24/09: Felix Steiny 10/4/96: Unicyclist is universally charming 

11/22/96: Vassar Firsts

3/27/98: Cushing Hosts ‘Marchi Gras’ 

10/10/97: Octoberfest a huge success 

4/10/98: Students and kids say, ‘I Won’t Grow Up!’

4/24/98: Barefoot Monkeys Authorized

4/16/99: I Won’t Grow Up Day ‘99

9/25/98: The groups that keep on giving to the community 

9/10/04: Vassar’s Barefoot Monkeys Organization of August ‘04

5/24/09: Felix Steiny  

Interview with Matt Wilson ‘99

Interview with Mia Geiduscheck ‘20

Website for Mid-Hudson jugglers http://thaumaturgy.net/~etgold/misc/mhjchome.html

Barefoot monkeys facebook page https://www.facebook.com/events/1798934477042267/

 


WW-2.2018