Circus School: Daring Mighty Things

When you were a kid, did you ever want – or threaten – to run away and join the circus? This concept has perhaps fallen out of usage; until recently, my children were unaware this was an option. Then we went to a day of circus school, and now they’re all about it.1-IMG_1351

Through a community list serve, we learned about Center Ring Circus School in Columbia, MD; another mom had set up a private class and was inviting others to register so they would have enough participants. I did not hesitate; it was just too cool of an opportunity.

We arrived at the school, a space in an industrial park similar to a martial arts or dance studio, wearing comfortable clothes, and not exactly sure what to expect. We were greeted by the other families and our instructors – friendly owner-operator Greg May (“Clown Greg”), and his mother, Betty. After some basic safety instructions, Greg quickly had the kids juggling scarves and, soon, balls. Throughout the morning, we moved through devil sticks, tightrope, rolla bolla (balance board), and, my personal favorite, aerial silks. These were the skills that were not too challenging; low failure rate. Yet, using warmth and humor, Greg constantly reminded the children that to fall was not to fail, and that when something seemed beyond their reach, it just meant they needed to keep growing.

Mid-day, we set up a table and ate our sack lunches while Greg told us stories and answered questions about his days in the circus (he and his wife toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for three years.) There was the one about the tiger escape, and another about the worst injury he saw happen, when a fellow clown simply jumped off a low step and landed wrong, breaking many bones in his foot. We also learned the importance of, “Hup!”, which means, “something is coming, pay attention!”

8-IMG_1332After lunch, we got into the harder skills, the ones I realized later Greg had been mentally preparing the students for, the ones with high initial fail rates. Stilts, spinning plates, diablo, and unicycles. For some kids, they were really hard. There were tears. “Is it hard?” asked Greg. “Yes. It’s supposed to be hard. If it was easy everyone would do it and it wouldn’t be special. But it is, and here you are, trying it.”

Near the end, in his clown wisdom, Greg lightened the mood again. He taught us how they cram clowns into a tiny car by fitting them tightly together. We fit 12 kids into a jam box, a big wooden box on wheels. Then he answered more questions about circus life, and ended the day with a pie in the face. He showed us how to make a “pie” out of shaving cream, and how to throw, and take, it in the kisser.

I noticed on the wall near the office at Center Ring was a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, called “Dare Mighty Things.” I was struck by how deeply the school seemed to embody the importance of trying hard things, in this case circus skills, for the good of the body and mind. In this vein, our family walked away from circus school with much more than a few new party tricks; we came out inspired by what we had accomplished, and emboldened to try more hard things in the future.

How much do you know about the circus? Have you ever tried to learn new, hard skills like juggling or unicycling?7-IMG_1402

Delve into circus life and learning with these sites:
CIRCUS – This 2010 PBS 6-part documentary captures life in the Big Apple Circus. Watch enthralling full episodes, play online games, learn tricks and study circus physics in-depth.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Fun Zone – Take a circus aptitude test, send your friend a “pie-o-gram”, fire the clown cannon, plus circus-related educational activities and lessons.
CircusFit – A national youth fitness program that combines the fun of circus skills with stretching, strength-building, and aerobic exercise.