September 4, 2019

Trenton Circus Squad Comes to Princeton, Under the Big Top at YMCA October 19

CIRCUS ARTS, SHAPING LIVES: Trenton Circus Squad (TCS) performers are preparing for their October 19 benefit “Step Right Up!” under the big top at the Princeton Family YMCA. The TCS program teaches circus arts, collaboration, and life skills to youths from Trenton and Mercer County suburbs. (Photo by Steve Sarafian)

By Donald Gilpin

The circus is coming to town on October 19 in the form of the Trenton Circus Squad (TCS), a troupe of young people from Trenton and surrounding Mercer County suburbs. They will be hosting “Step Right Up!” — their annual benefit “to help youth take big leaps in life” in a big top circus tent at the Princeton Family YMCA on Paul Robeson Place.

In its fifth year, TCS, based in the Roebling Wire Works building on Clinton Street in Trenton, will offer its Princeton audience a taste of what it means to be a part of the TCS atmosphere. “We want you to get a glimpse into what makes this organization so magnetic,” said TCS Co-Founder and Executive Director Tom Von Oehsen. “Our performances make people smile.”

The event will include carnival games, a sit-down dinner, cocktails, a live auction, an art installation by Eva Mantell, and the featured TCS circus performance accompanied by live music by the Ever After Band.

More than 20 high school-age troupers will perform aerial acts — on the trapeze, metal lyra hoops, and silks (long pieces of fabric hung from the ceiling) — unicycling, juggling, clowning, stilt walking, wire walking, and more.

“This is an opportunity for the kids to shine and to show everybody the results of this program,” Von Oehsen said. The program, with a busy full-time summer schedule and after-school sessions from September to June, is free to participants, ages 6 to 18, with the nonprofit TCS relying on individual and corporate donations and public funding.

Von Oehsen, a  graduate of Ringing Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College, emphasized that the TCS is definitely focused on learning circus skills and creating successful performances, but its mission is much larger.

“The program gives kids a sense of identity and builds a lot of confidence,” he said. “It gives them a sense of who they are and what they want to do in life. It encourages them to have dreams and goals and to understand how school and education fit into those goals.” 

He went on to point out the importance of maintaining a balance of youth from low income areas with kids from high income areas, with about half the squad members from Trenton and about half from Princeton, Hopewell, West Windsor, Pennington, and other parts of Mercer County.

“There’s a sense of mutuality,” Von Oehsen said. “The kids from Trenton are serving the kids from the suburbs as much as the kids from the suburbs are serving the kids from Trenton. There’s a back and forth. That’s how these strong relationships are formed among the squad members. They rely on each other and trust each other.”

Von Oehsen noted the appropriateness of the Roebling building as their headquarters, with Roebling famed for building literal bridges and the TCS’s mission to build figurative bridges. “We’re bringing kids together,” he said. “creating that human connection, binding the suburbs to the city.” 

He continued, “They have to rely on each other, bridging differences, overcoming stereotypes. They grew up in vastly different environments, but they’re still kids, and they come together and experience this success and joy. If you give them this opportunity, it’s something that engages them, excites them, and they feel great about themselves.”

Preparing now to plunge into its fall programs and rehearsals for the October 19 event, TCS is coming off a busy summer, when its influence spread far beyond the borders of Mercer County.

Early in the summer eight TCS members joined five other social service circus programs from around the country for a gathering in Chicago. All the groups put on a show together, and “what an experience that was,” Von Oehsen said.

The TCS troupe presented week-long workshop residencies in Asbury Park, Camden, and New Brunswick, at the invitation of those cities, and held a four-week program in Trenton. Last month TCS took seven performers to San Diego to the American Youth Circus Organization Festival, featuring about 350 kids from across the country.

Each organization put on a show. “It was all about civic engagement and social change,” voh Oehsen said. “The other groups were very intense and serious, but we provided a breath of fresh air. Our energy is light and fun, with lots of clowning. The Trenton Circus Squad was a hot commodity at the festival.”

For more information on the Trenton Circus Squad and tickets to the October 19 event, visit