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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar's College Historian

The Barefoot Fireflies

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 Fireflies established themselves as a Vassar staple in the 21st century. Known primarily for their fire shows each semester, they also offer indoor shows and lead on-campus circus and flow-arts conventions (now called Flow Up Glow Up). The group signifies something greater than their events, as the Barefoot Fireflies 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 Fireflies 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 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.

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

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 website. 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.

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 Fireflies 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 first moniker, The Barefoot Monkeys. 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. The club changed its name in 2020. The old name made some of the club and community members uncomfortable. The word “monkey” had been and were still being used in a genetic, derogatory and racially charged context, and the club didn’t want to identify with that possibly harmful language. The club leaders and members who enacted the change acknowledged “that there was no mal-intent when the club was named.”

In the fall of 1997, the club started to hit its stride. It continued to expand membership like, as Matt recalled, “fire attracting lost freshmen moths.” Alex Smith ’01 and Olivia Lehrman ’01 were two moths who were most influential to the group. Smith became the second President 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 her Barefoot Firefly connection post-gradually.

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 traveled 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 Fireflies. The name became official in the spring of 1998 when they started receiving Vassar Student Association funding.

By 2003, the Barefoot Fireflies had increased their practices to twice a week and had expanded into a full circus arts group, growing their repertoire, the Miscellany News reported in 2003, to include “fire-throwing, unicycling, gymnastics, staff throwing and twirling, and complex juggling routines”. By 2004, the fire show started to become a Barefoot Firefly tradition, and 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 Fireflies, having tripled in size, had become a Vassar institution. Their presence on campus served as a welcoming arm of the college with the performance of their fire show annually on All Families Weekend. The club is a tight-knit community and the connections made in it last beyond Vassar; many club alumnae/i come back to cheer on the younger Firefly generations during their shows.

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 https://thaumaturgy.net/~etgold/misc/mhjchome.html

Barefoot Fireflies Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/VCBarefootFireflies/


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