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Staff

Tara Jacob Executive Director

Tara first fell in love with the fun, creativity, and community she found in the circus as a teenager at The Circus Space in London, and went on to found the Circus Folk Unite! collective at Hampshire College. She then completed the 2012-2013 Professional Track program at the New England Center for the Circus Arts. Tara served on the AYCO Board of Directors from 2015-2017, then was AYCO’s Operations Manager from 2017-2018. She is currently also an instructor at SHOW Circus Studio in Easthampton, MA.

Claire Dehm Safety Program Coordinator/Social Circus Initiative Coordinator

Claire is a circus educator and advocate who attended her first AYCO event at the 2010 Educators Conference. She holds a B.S. in Marketing Communications and a minor in Recreation from Ithaca College where she was involved with the circus club, ICircus. Claire believes that there is place for everyone in circus.

Natasha Shatzkin Event Director

Natasha Shatzkin joined Stone Soup Circus in New Jersey when she was ten years old. Soon after, she started teaching and went on to act as the artistic director of a local youth-only circus company. She has served as the founding head coach of the Trenton Circus Squad, a social circus in NJ, and is currently the chair of AYCO’s Youth Advisory Committee. Right now, she is pursing degrees in Urban Studies, Geology, and Engineering at Brown University and is trying to see every circus show that comes within a 100 mile radius. Natasha is especially interested in strengthening non-traditional pathways for those aging out of youth circus.

Board of Directors

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Updated October 16, 2020

Jen Agans, Ph.D. Chair
Jen Agans, Ph.D., is a research scientist at Cornell University, where she works to build synergy between youth development research and practice. She grew up in youth circus, training with Jackie and Rick Davis beginning in middle school, touring with Circus Smirkus in 2004, and coaching at the Silver Lining Circus Camp from 2005 to 2009 before serving as camp director from 2010 to 2014. Jen has been a member of AYCO since 2001, only missed one AYCO festival (2007), and has been bringing her research and evaluation perspective to AYCO/ACE conferences since 2010.

Jesse Dryden Vice Chair 
Jesse Dryden conquered his fear of clowns by becoming the first Canadian graduate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Due to an allergy to tigers, he was forced to pursue the craft of clowning elsewhere. Through a buffet of subsequent festivals, prestigious events, street shows and various tours in Canada, the US and Europe, Jesse discovered his aptitude for the kidney stones. He spent 19 years with Vermont’s Circus Smirkus, developing their Camp and School residency programs. And was the Creative Director of their Big Top tour for a decade. In between, he took some time to perform with Cirque du Soleil,  and do outreach circus in Africa. He also toured as the clown in Cirque Mechanics’ “Birdhouse Factory” for 7 years.  He is currently the clown coach and a teacher trainer at the National Circus School in Montreal.  Jesse Dryden is passionate about inspiring and teaching artists of all ages to access their own internal creativity through playfulness and thoughtful emotional reflection.

Dan Roberts Treasurer
Dan Roberts brings a diverse background in social circus, arts education, youth advocacy and non-profit leadership to the AYCO/ACE board.  He began his career in social circus in Chicago, serving as the associate director of CircEsteem from 2004-2007.  He spent time with Circus Smirkus as an artist-in-residence and summer camp instructor for two seasons.  In 2008, Dan moved to Jakarta, Indonesia where he, together with his wife and best friend, founded the Red Nose Foundation, an Indonesian organization that champions the rights of children in education and child protection through after-school arts, athletics, and educational programming.  He served as the organization’s Executive Director for eight years.  After transitioning out of Red Nose (where he now sits on the board) in 2016, Dan returned to Chicago to lead CircEsteem as its Executive Director.  Dan is the very proud father of two amazing clowns (children).  He holds a BFA in Acting from Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts and is also a founding member (and current Treasurer) of the Asian Social Circus Association, an association that connects social circuses from Kabul to Canberra.

Carlo Pelligrini, Secretary
Carlo’s circus career spans 40 years as ringmaster, clown, producer, director and choreographer. In 2002 he co-founded Amazing Grace CIRCUS! as a social/community circus for teens. Today, “Mr. Amazing” and his Teen Troupe teach over 3,000 children a year how to Soar to Success through Circus Arts. He is Creative Director for Westchester Circus Arts Center in Tarrytown, NY, and a keynote speaker for corporate meetings with his innovative program The Juggling MATRIX.

Anne Boock Miller, Ph.D.
Anne Boock Miller, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and the founder/artistic director of Suspend, a circus arts studio in Louisville, KY. She has particular interests in neurodevelopmentally appropriate and adaptive circus education, and the use of circus and aerial dance as a tool for therapeutic and cultural change.

Lyra Gray
Lyra Gray is the owner and director of Aerotique, a circus school in Columbus, Ohio. She has a master’s degree in special education and spent many years as a special education teacher in the public school systems. She has over 20 years of experience in teaching, leading and creating youth programming in a variety of sports and disciplines and is an advocate for empowering youth populations through movement-based programming. Her teaching experience bridges a variety of aerial, circus, and other sports and encompasses levels from youth beginner to competitive and adult learning. Lyra is passionate about making Circus Arts accessible to everyone and loves to teach new students and introduce her community to the wonderful world of circus.

Kristina Wicke

Kristina Wicke has spent her entire adult career supporting creativity and play in some form or fashion. Early on, she was introduced to a rag-tag bunch of juggler/vaudevillians called The Flying Karamazov Brothers; and she toured the world with them as their Production Manager collecting great stories, crazy experiences, life-long friends and a multitude of bad puns! In 2011, she was part of the producing team that brought the Tony Award nominated musical, A Christmas Story, to Broadway, further solidifying her belief that collaboration, celebration, and trust are vital to success.

Kristina brings a host of non-profit leadership skills to the board of AYCO/ACE through her more than 20 years working in the Seattle theatre community, and service as Executive Director of SANCA. She is delighted to combine her passion for youth development, physical literacy, performance, play, and equity to an institution devoted to all of those things!

Jens Larson
Upon graduating from college where he competed as a gymnast, Jens fell in love with the circus and spent 19 years as a performing artist. His specialties were aerial roman rings, comedy chairbalancing, and rola bola. He performed on four different continents in shows that ranged from small (the five-person Royal Lichtenstein Circus) to huge (multiple-ring Shrine circuses in the US and Canada) and ran the stylistic spectrum from traditional (Vidbel Family Circus and others) to contemporary (San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus). Jens then changed course and taught math for 14 years in public high schools in Phoenix, Arizona. In 2015 Jens combined his previous two careers and became a circus educator by starting Phoenix Youth Circus Arts, a social circus program that produces after-school circus clubs, summer camps and special events throughout the city.

Interested in getting involved as a volunteer, joining the board, or serving on a committee? Email info@americanyouthcircus.org.

In Memoriam Rick Davis
A founding member of AYCO, Rick’s 30 year career took him to Ringling Brothers Circus, Broadway, DisneyWorld, The White House, and tours of 15 countries. He was the author of 3 books, and conducted circus school residencies for Circus Smirkus. He was also the founder and director of SchoolShows.com, the largest directory of school assembly performers.

Founder’s Statement Kevin O’Keefe
“AYCO started out as a small dream in my heart. I knew what I did as the director of Circus Minimus and CircusYoga worked in my communities but longed for connections to others and to see the national landscape of circus. An initial query branched out to those I knew, we became a small community of teachers and artists for a few years. The first festival in 1999 was designed by my wife Erin Maile O’Keefe. We floated it on our credit card at Sailor Circus in Sarasota FL. Our organization placed itself firmly on the cultural map with our 2nd festival at Circus Juventas in Minnesota. Since then we have grown by leaps and bounds by finding strength in diversity and community. Even our dreams are not our own in the circus. We must share everything.”