by Chris Killian
Sometime during the middle of her freshman year at Kalamazoo College, Colleen McIntee ’11 was walking across the “K” Quad when she noticed some fellow students performing handstands and twisting themselves into pretzel-like shapes.
“I met some really welcoming goofball kids on the Quad and they said, ‘Come try this stuff, come play,’” she said.
The circus performing arts student group that McIntee, encountered that day – Cirque Du K – had a small but loyal following. She was hooked immediately by the student-run organization, one of nearly 50 coordinated by College’s Office of Student Development.
“There were 10 people in the group back then. Okay, maybe six,” McIntee said.
By the time she graduated in June 2011 with a degree in economics and French, that number had grown to 25 active members, she said. And McIntee had found a passion for circus arts that she now intends to spread.
“We started doing a lot of cool stuff,” she said. “We started doing aerials and that generated a lot of excitement because it was new and different. We built our skills elsewhere and then got together and shared those skills. Being one who helped Cirque du K grow was really exciting.
"That’s just the way ‘K’ is. It might be small, but there are so many people doing so many cool and crazy things. There’s a niche for everyone.”
Those new skills were honed later on a Center for Career and Professional Development-sponsored externship with Aerial Angels, a Kalamazoo-based circus performing arts group that specializes in arts like aerial silk, where performers climb a suspended fabric and rely on their training and skill to wrap, suspend, drop, swing and spiral their bodies into and out of various positions.
McIntee, a native of Troy, Michigan, accompanied the group to a renaissance festival in Boston with another performing stop in Pennsylvania. She admits she was still a bit green.
“It was a little nerve-wracking at the time, when they were like, ‘this is the second time you’ve eaten fire, now go up there and do it in front of people. They’re gonna clap and it’s gonna be good,’” she said.
But circus performing arts are more than swallowing fire or hanging precariously from a piece of equipment. It’s also about strength, grace, and control over one’s body.
“You have to be strong,” McIntee said. “You have to know how to make all the parts of your body work at the same time, knowing how to have control of your core, and the ways to be the most efficient to do what you have to do.
She also represented Cirque du K at two national conferences of the American Youth Circus Organization in Brattleboro, Vermont, and Sarasota, Florida.
“I never thought I’d be doing things like this. But I found circus arts and I fell in love.”
Now she wants to take her knowledge and passion for the art form to the schools. In May 2013, McIntee is scheduled to graduate from the University of Michigan’s MAC program, a specialized course of study that fast-tracks teachers into the secondary school classroom, providing them with a master’s degree and teaching certification in one year’s time. She is currently enrolled at Eastern Michigan University, taking pre-requisite courses for the program.
She already has some experience as an educator, teaching physical education at “K” in her senior year spring and helping out at Starfish Circus, Aerial Angels’ summer camp for kids, where she taught circus arts. She also volunteered as a guest instructor and assistant at a youth circus school called Astuces, as part of an Intercultural Research Project during study abroad in Clermont-Ferrand, France.
McIntee’s Senior Individualized Project was a comprehensive study in arts management and entrepreneurship carried out under the auspices of the “K”
"I never thought I'd be doing things like this."Economics Department. A community outreach component of her SIP was built around a circus arts program called “Circus in the Zoo,” which she performed with other Cirque du K members at the Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative in Kalamazoo. She received financial support for this from the “K” Student Commission and the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership.
McIntee wants to teach physical education, and sees the physical components of circus arts as being easy to integrate into a curriculum, making what could be a boring class fun and interesting – without the fire.
“I like how circus arts combine physical fitness with creative expression and theatre,” she said. “It’s not competitive, you are cooperating to create something for others—and yourself—to enjoy. Not every kid wants to play basketball in gym class. But, yeah, we won’t be eating any fire.”
McIntee lives with her grandparents in Ann Arbor, and will for the next few years as she finishes her master’s program. In the backyard, next to a garden shriveling from the early fall air, she twirls a hula-hoop from one arm to the other. She then performs another move, with the hoop rolling across her chest, her arms curled into a half circle.
Then she climbs onto her handmade handstand blocks, a special stagecraft project from her time at “K.” She does the splits, then sets her foot on one block, bringing her other foot behind her back and above her head for a scale—all while maintaining perfect balance.
But McIntee saved the best move in this mini-exposition of her skills for last. With two hands on the blocks, she raises her legs behind her and twists them, like she’s turning them into a propeller.
“I can’t do this one for long,” she said. “It’s giving me a headache.”
Photos 1-2 - Colleen McIntee in performance
Photos 4-6 - Colleen in practice