Under the big top

Kids learn the circus arts in St. Paul

Hundreds of local children are joining the circus-and they don't have to run away to do it. Circus Juventas is a youth performing arts circus school offering classes in everything from juggling to learning to soar on the flying trapeze under its very own big top in Highland Park.

Whether they're aspiring members of the Cirque du Soleil or you're just looking for a fun way for them to get some exercise, every child will find something he or she likes at Circus Juventas.

The year-round curriculum is grouped into five major areas of the circus arts: acrobatics, aerial, balance, circus theatre, and juggling. Most students begin by taking an introductory "circus experience" course designed to give them a taste of each of the five areas so they can assess their capabilities and decide which area interests them the most. Once they've chosen to pursue a particular area, students have the opportunity to show off their skills in full-scale, costumed productions every May and August.

Building the dream

Circus Juventas was founded in 1994 by Betty and Dan Butler, who met as teenagers performing in the Sailor Circus in Sarasota, Fla. After dedicating most of their young lives to the circus, the couple took a 14-year hiatus to pursue other interests, including starting a family.

But like any true love, it didn't take much to rekindle the Butlers' passion for the art form: the pair returned to the Sailor Circus stage in 1994 for an alumni performance and, according to Betty, that's when they knew what they must do.

"We just realized that it's too hard not to do what you love,"Betty says. "We wanted to share all the things we got out of the circus with others. This was our dream, and somehow we figured out how to do it."

The Butlers' dream started as a modest proposal to the St. Paul Park Board for a small afterschool program in circus arts. Classes were limited to 30 students and were taught in a neighborhood recreation center on hand-made equipment. In 1995, Circus Juventas (then called Circus of the Star) made its performance debut at St. Paul's Highland Fest. The show sparked overwhelming interest in the school, and its waiting list quickly grew to more than 300 names.

"It got to the point where we knew we either needed a permanent space to do this for real, or we needed to quit," Betty says. "It was like, 'Either do this right, or don't do it.'" But there was nowhere for Circus Juventas to go-a suitable space simply did not exist. So in 1996, the Butlers began a capital campaign to build their very own big top. The cost: $2.1 million.

On July 9, 2001, after five years of campaigning and planning, Circus Juventas opened the doors of its permanent home: a 21,000-square-foot big top set on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Highland Park. The structure-which uses a tension membrane system to allow for a completely open space inside-is the only one of its kind in the country. Its steel beams can withstand winds of up to 120 mph, and its custom-designed ceiling beams can bear weight of up to 7,600 pounds. Plus, there's enough room inside to accommodate nine classes at a time.

Making it magical

When the big top opened, Circus Juventas had 270 students. Today, there are more than 600. The success of the school can be at least partially attributed to the caliber of its instructors. In addition to the Butlers' own circus credentials (Betty worked with the famous Flying Wallenda family, while Dan once studied with Willie Edelston of the Ringling Brothers Circus), the school's faculty also boasts world champion jugglers, an alumnus of the Mongolian Circus School, and a former Cirque du Soleil acrobat, among others.

More than anything, however, it's the art form itself that is striking a chord with kids and parents alike.

"The dynamics of the circus arts are so beneficial to youth," Betty says. "The physical training is great, but there are huge emotional benefits. The things you learn here go very deep into the soulIt's very liberating to try things you never thought you could do. Kids get scared, but they push through it and they grow."

Betty stresses how beneficial the circus arts can be to teenagers in particular, as they often struggle with self-esteem and body issues. "It's so great to see teens here," she says. "It's the perfect place to develop their bodies and for boys and girls to work on an equal level-there's no judging."

Despite its growing popularity, Betty says she still encounters parents who are skeptical about letting their children take classes at Circus Juventas. "Some people just don't get it," she says, "They hear 'circus' and they picture poodles jumping through hoops."

But it's a rare parent who isn't convinced after seeing their kids in action. "Parents love it," Betty says. "Their kids look like different people [than when they started]-you can see the confidence."

For more information about Circus Juventas, visit www.circusjuventas.com or call 651-699-8229. Summer camps are offered for kids age 2-18 beginning in June.

Katharine Kelly is a local writer, mother of twins Aidan and Owen, 1, and stepmom to Anthony, 13.

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