If kids ran the circus

Seven monkeys jumping on my bed usually delights me, but sometimes I’d like to ship ’em off to the circus. Fortunately, this is easier than you might think. The Twin Cities teem with youth circus options for kids of every size and ability.

Bona fide big top

Circus Juventas is large and in charge, with over 700 students, from toddlers to age 21. Little ones start with basic tumbling, jump rope, and globe-walking skills, while big kids attempt flying trapezes, Spanish webs, and “bicycles built for 10.”

Higher-level courses can get intense, particularly when it comes to performing in the August show. Executive Director Betty Butler says proudly that “kids work hard here if they want big things.”

This is good, according to teenage student Anna Johnson, who says that circus, the only “sport” she has ever done, has taught her “passion.” “I’ve really learned to go for something, which can only help with college and other important areas in life.”

Everyone is welcome, including kids with disabilities, for whom Juventas has recently developed a rings course. Diversity is key among students and coaches, many of whom come from China, Russia, and Mongolia.

Intimate flight

Across town in Northeast Minneapolis, Xelias Aerial Arts studio is an intimate space, whose cloud-painted walls suggest serene flight.

Whereas Juventas seems to bulge with state-of-the-art apparatus, the Xelias floor, a vermillion foam mat that begs to be tumbled upon, remains wide open, and simple block rigging fastened to rafters doesn’t require machinery to move — just a 24’ ladder. Which isn’t to say that the options are few. An impressive array of ropes, Lyra hoops, and single and multiple traps lines the back wall.

Xelias classes cost a few dollars more than Juventas’s per five-week session, but lower-key performances require fewer costume payments. “We just cut up polka-dot tights for our showcases in May and November,” explains founder Meg Elias Emery.

Emery, a former aerialist with Barnum and Bailey, emphasizes climbing strength and encourages students to practice outside of class with tucks, pikes, and pull-ups at the playground, and “ab parties” at home.” What’s an ab party? “Sit-ups, v-ups, and balancing in a pushup position on a kickball” are a good start!”

Parents can get into the act, too. About a third of the 150 students at Xelias are adults. I asked her if she could teach me to do a back flip, a life-long goal. “Yeah, we can do that here,” Emery assured me as she handed me a souvenir — a roll of purple athletic tape. “Wrap this around chin-up bars at home. Kids’ hands will stick better.”

Circus in spirit

Xelias and Juventas are serious options for aspiring aerialists and acrobats, but for kids drawn to humor and “razzle-dazzle,” I found a hidden jewel in Minneapolis’ Seward Neighborhood. Josie Winship, a local artist and teacher, runs her own week-long circus arts camp every summer. “I’ve been teaching visual arts for 18 years, but performance lets us be our own art,” says Winship.

I met Winship at her cabin studio, a far cry from a billowing big top, where she confided that her camp was “circus in spirit.”

Despite the cabin’s cozy constraints, Winship and “troupe” manage daring physical stunts — in miniature! This year, they designed a tiny circus in the style of artist Alexander Calder. “The troupe set up string tightropes and tread them with [intrepid] clothespins.” Another act entailed building “Mini-Me” dolls and launching them from mechanical cannons.

Troupes also perform interpretive dances, cardboard dumbbell “weightlifting competitions,” and “high-wire acts” on anchored 4x4s. Exaggeration, not athleticism, is her key fitness component. As Winship puts it, “A lot of sweat goes into making a couple ounces of cardboard seem like a 400-pound barbell.”

Sheff Otis (a.k.a. “The Dadiator”) is a local writer, fitness fiend, and father of seven. He blogs at SevenSidekicks.com.

Join the circus!
Circus Juventas 651-699-8229 www.circusjuventas.org

Xelias Aerial Arts Studio www.watchhumansfly.com

Josie Winship’s Circus Art Camp [email protected]

Trending Stories