AYCO History

Once upon a time eight circus innovators got together, put on clown noses, and decided to start an organization dedicated to promoting the participation of youth in circus arts and supporting circus educators.

Chapter 1

Spring 1998 – First meeting called. Having worked in youth circus for 13 years and feeling a need to connect to others in youth circus, Kevin O’Keefe puts out the call to what is known to him of the national youth circus community. Eight youth circus directors and educators (Berkshire Children’s Circus, Atlanta Circus Camp, Circus Smirkus, Van Lodofstov Circus, Hilltop Circus) take the plunge for an all-day conference to share and talk-story on our common ground. Enough commonality and interest is discovered to continue meeting.

Fall 1998-Spring 2000 – Baby stepping, AYCO (as it has come to be known) meets in various locales for weekend retreats that are part skill-sharing, open exchange, and dream circles for how a national organization might address the common needs. The first newsletter goes out. The website goes on-line. Stationary and T-shirts are designed and realized. A bank account is opened and membership dues collected. AYCO Board meets bi-annually to discuss these and many other issues: membership, website, policy, structure, election, dues, promotional materials, out reach, workshops, skill sharing, non-profit status, and anything else brought to the attention of the board. Organizations attending include Cirque du Monde, Circus Smirkus, Hilltop Circus, Berkshire Kids Circus, Circus Minimus, Cascade Youth Circus, Sailor Circus, Children’s Circus of Middletown, Van Lodofstov, Highland Hall Circus, and others in the field.

Spring 2000 – Support from Rob Mermin of Circus Smirkus and Gil Favreau of Cirque du Soleil for the fledgling organization enables it to open a national AYCO office in Temple NH. Jackie and Rick Davis volunteer to house and manage it.

July 2000 – Outreach. Kevin O’Keefe and Jackie Davis are invited to represent the US at an International Youth Circus Congress in Berlin. Kevin addresses the assembly about AYCO and is translated into three languages. The Europeans discover a connection to America’s youth circus community and their lost sense of humor in our president’s speech.
Fall 2000 – AYCO board members and Sailor Circus meet in upstate NY to plan for the first AYCO Festival in 2001. Erin Maile O’Keefe agrees to direct it.

Winter 2001 – AYCO Board flies to Sarasota for a weekend planning session at Sailor Circus for AYCO Festival 2001.

July 2001 – The International Juggler’s Association presents AYCO founder Kevin O’Keefe with the Excellence in Education Award for his work with AYCO and Circus Minimus. O’Keefe accepts the award and the keys to a brand new Lexus convertible and drives to the AYCO Festival.

Chapter 2

August 2001 – The Big Splash. AYCO Festival 2001 is a reality. To AYCO’s great surprise, seventy-five participants and nine youth troupes arrive in Sarasota, Florida for four days. Twenty-five workshops, one youth gala and one professional show later AYCO is on the national circus map. Reg Bolton from Australia delivers a keynote address that rocks the audience with laughter and gives them a new perspective on their work in circus. The overwhelming feeling was positive and the reviews were outstanding: “A remarkable achievement” and “An embarrassment of riches.” -Spectacle Magazine.

September 2001 – December 2002 – AYCO board members met with lawyers, filed for nonprofit status, revised our bylaws, worked on a Circus Directory project, created curriculum materials, developed ideas for teacher trainings, networked circuses nationally and internationally, and searched for next festival site.

March 2003 – AYCO board members visit Circus Juventas to plan the festival.

June 2003 – AYCO receives non-profit status from the IRS. A fireworks display accompanies the announcement. AYCO Board meets again to plan the festival.

August 2003 – AYCO holds it second bi-annual festival in St. Paul, MN. It is three times the size of the previous festival with two public performances and is a success in every way. At the festival, a “Future of AYCO” meeting is attended by 40 enthusiastic circus educators and professionals. Seeds of AYCO’s burgeoning board of directors are planted.

October 2004 – Aerial Teacher’s Conference held at NECCA, bringing together over 60 top aerial instructors from the U.S. and Canada and sparking our biennial Educators Conference tradition.

August 2005 – AYCO holds its third national youth circus festival. Over 400 participants and 60 presenters make San Francisco a very happy place for 4 wonderful days.

October 2006 – AYCO, in conjunction with trainers from Cirque du Monde, provide 5 days of training in Social Circus

November 2006 – AYCO hosts the Educators Conference on Social Circus at CircEsteem in Chicago, bringing together over 60 participants and presenters.

August 2007 – AYCO holds its fourth national youth circus festival. Over 200 participants and 40 presenters convene for 4 days in Normal, IL on the campus of Southern Illinois University. Hosted by Gamma Phi Circus.

October 2008 – Boulder Circus Center hosts the 3rd national AYCO Educators Conference.

August 2009 – Island Lake Camp, Starruca PA, is the location for the 5th national youth circus festival. AYCO celebrates its 10th birthday!

Chapter 3

October 2009 – March 2010 – AYCO undertakes 5-year strategic planning process with the assistance of Zoë Brookes, formerly of Bain & Company, The Bridgespan Group and Wellspring Consulting. The strategic planning committee comprises Rick Davis, Chuck Johnson, David Hunt, Jean St John and Donna Wood-Babcock. The plan includes a renewed commitment to serving the whole of the youth circus sector in the USA through informing, convening and advocating.

September 2010 – New England Center for Circus Arts hosts the 4th national AYCO Educators Conference. AYCO hire’s it’s first staff, a part time operations director. Zoë Brookes starts her two year term as volunteer Executive Director.

August 2011 – Sailor Circus hosts the 6th national youth circus festival in Sarasota, Florida. Chicago and New York host their first regional youth circus festivals.

March 2012 –  Chuck Johnson and Zoe Brookes spearhead efforts to include setting standards for safety into AYCO’s activities. The seeds are planted for what is now the ACE Circus Arts Safety Program.

August 2012 – The School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) in Seattle hosts our circus educators conference. Attendees come from all over the USA and 6 countries around the world.

April 2013 – Amy Cohen is named Executive Director.

August 2013 – The School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) in Seattle generously hosts us once again – this time it’s the youth festival. 300 youth, coaches, and families attend.

January 2014 – At the annual board of directors retreat, our organization decides to initiate a new branch – the American Circus Educators Association (ACE). ACE houses all resources and events aimed towards circus educators. The Circus Arts Safety Program, created by a committee comprised of Adam Woolley, Elsie Smith, Jonathan Deull, and Beverly Sobelman, is launched in beta.

We host our very first youth showcase at the Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival. 50 youth from 11 states participate.

August 2014  The ACE Circus Educators conference is hosted by the National Circus School Montreal. The event sells out for the first time in our history. The Circus Arts Safety Program launches.

March 2015– Our new website launches and we look forward to a year of regional festivals, showcases, the biennial national festival at the Circus Conservatory of America in Portland Maine, and continual support for circus youth, parents, educators, and institutions.

October 2016 – The ACE Circus Educators conference at the Circus Center in San Francisco, CA.

August 2017 – AYCOfest is at Trenton Circus Squad in Trenton, NJ.

October 2018 – The ACE Circus Educators conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Amy Cohen steps down as Executive Director and Tara Jacob becomes interim ED. The Circus Arts Institute hosts a Circus Arts Therapy Intensive just before the EdCon.

August 2019 – AYCOfest at San Diego Circus Center in San Diego, CA. The Social Circus Symposium also takes place directly after the festival, in collaboration with Cirque du Monde. Tara Jacob becomes the Executive Director of AYCO/ACE.

October 2020 – The ACE Circus Educators conference goes virtual due to the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic.