Adventures as a Circus Camp Counselor

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Juniper and fellow counselors pose with new stilt walkers. Photo by Marcia Miquelon.

I recently spent three weeks as a circus camp counselor for a small circus day camp in Mazomanie, Wisconsin. The kids I was working with were ages six to twelve, a pretty large age range. It was fascinating to see kids try out circus arts for the first time. The camp I supervised at teaches juggling, clowning and mime basics, tightwire, low flying trapeze, acrobatics basics, and stiltwalking. Everyone learns a bit of everything. At the end of the week the choreograph a big show that the kids perform for their families. Watching the kid’s circus skills flourish reminded me why circus is my favorite obsession.

A major part of working at a circus camp is spotting people as they attempt things for the first time. This can definitely be kind of scary and difficult. I have done spotting work before, but not so much of it all at once. One of my major spotting duties was to spot first time stilt walkers. We start kids out on two foot peg stilts, which means that most kids need a spotter to walk with them constantly for the first few days. For the first two to three days most beginners need to lean heavily on a spotters arms as they walk. The gratifying part comes when they begin to start finding their balance and are able to start taking steps without a spotter. I love seeing how proud the kids are when they get free of their spotter for the first time.

The other types of spotting I worked with were on acrobatics and trapeze. Spotting acrobatics was mostly correcting the kids posture and demonstrating moves. We try not to get too complicated with acro, as typically everyone is on very different levels. Trapeze spotting involves a lot of making sure the kids don’t fall. You have to be ready to keep the head and shoulders away from the ground in case the kid falls. You also have to give the kid a boost if they need it. Once the kids perfect the skills we have to remind them to act like performers, and to “style and smile”.

Once a week, the other counselors and I would perform a short show for the camp kids. The goal of this performance was to give the kids something to work up to and to demonstrate showmanship. I really enjoyed seeing how in awe they were by the end of the performance. In all three weeks we saw admiration and disbelief. One kid even said, “I’d never be able to do that, not even in twelve million, forty thousand, eight hundred and twenty four years!” Of course, we had to assure them that if they worked hard, they could do anything someday.

Friday was definitely the most exciting day of the week. We had a whole show to rehearse and perform! Rehearsals are definitely harder and longer when there are kids involved. Kids generally have short attention spans, so you have to constantly remind them to stay on task. It can take forty five minutes to rehearse a fifteen minute act! However, the focus level goes way up once there is an actual audience to perform for. Another fun part about the show is costuming. We have a large costume collection, and the kids all get to choose costumes for the show. Us counselors got to use whatever costumes were left over once the kids had all picked. Each week the show went incredibly well. And, of course, the audience loved it!

It was so fun to see kids come in to camp having never even tried circus before, and come out as seasoned performers. I watched so many kids gain strength, confidence, and determination during my time as a circus camp counselor. And while I know that not all of the kids I worked with will choose circus as their lifelong passion, I am hopeful that at least a few of them will become circus performers for life.

– Juniper

My Life in Circus

My name is Andrew and I live in Southern California.  I am 16 years of age and I live, eat, and breathe circus.  I train in teeterboard, high wire, unicycle, juggling, clowning, silks, Chinese pole, and stilts. I’m also currently performing stilts at the San Diego Zoo for the summer.  I’m pretty new to this whole blogging thing, but I thought that I might as well give it a shot.  That’s enough about myself, for now – what I really want to do is tell you about the circus I am involved with, The Great All American Youth Circus.
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That’s me on the top and friend Trevor on the bottom. (Photo by Jenna Lowery)

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That’s me walking high wire at an event on Halloween. Photo by Insomniac Events

Within the small town of Redlands is a tightly knit community of people of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds which all revolves around one thing, The Great All American Youth Circus.  Founded in 1929 by a former Ringling Brothers performer, Roy Coble, the Great All American Youth Circus was a youth circus before youth circus was even a thing.  The program began out of the neighborhood YMCA, then moved to a community park and outdoor amphitheater and has since migrated back into the same YMCA where classes are held and shows are performed.  The Great All American Youth Circus just finished its 76th performing year (the numbers don’t line up because the circus paused for WWII and had a few dark year during transitions).
The long history of this youth circus is not the only thing that makes it special, it’s the people who are involved.  What many non-circusers in my town don’t understand is that the Great All American Youth Circus isn’t just 300+ weirdos who play with lions in their spare time (“What?! You’re in a circus? Do you have lions?”), it’s a group of 300+ loving family members.  Our current director, Tanner Greenhalgh, who grew up in the program, is able to see through the eye of a youth circus performer and understands what is going on in the mind of the youth circus performer. Also, the trainers aren’t paid, they are strictly volunteers, so everybody who is there wants to be there. This allows for tighter knit relationships between the trainer and the performer, therefore making an easier and more effective learning experience. Because one is able to start at the young age of 3, they grow up with the same people by their sides up until college when some of them sadly move away and others continue as performers or trainers. This is the best kind of circus family.

Most of my school friends have a hard time fathoming the little amounts of free time that is allowed in my day. My typical weekday begins with school at around 7, then homework, then soccer and circus, ending at around 9:30 or 10.  Circus has made my life too busy too “hang out”, however I have gained a family in doing so.

I’ve been involved involved in the Great All American Youth Circus since my older brothers joined when I was just a year old. At 3 years old I was able to join, so my parents enrolled me. At first, circus wasn’t my top priority.  Overachieving in school and playing soccer were what most of my focus was on, but I was always involved in circus. However, in the past couple of years, I have started to take it more seriously. Getting in shape, focusing on certain skills, etc, and I have fallen in love. The people, the places, the shows, everything, I love it all.

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From top to bottom is William, Charles, Me, Phillip, and Elizabeth (My siblings). Photo by Mark Keidel.

– Andrew

Circus Takes Trenton, New Jersey

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Photo by Trenton Circus Squad staff

The Trenton Circus Squad is a nonprofit organization that works to better the Trenton, New Jersey community via circus. Squad members train at a newly renovated warehouse that was once part of the Roebling Wire Factory. The program is run by Executive Director Zoe Brookes and Program Director Thomas von Oehson, as well as the lead coach Liam Quat and instructors Natasha Shatzkin and Sky Jaffe.

The Trenton Circus Squad itself is a group of teens ages twelve to eighteen from Trenton, Princeton, and surrounding areas who train together, perform, and teach workshops at the Factory. The Squad meets multiple times a week for four hours a day throughout the school year. A typical day begins with a snack and a quick meeting in the ring before the Squad members disperse to lead workshops for the Squad-in-Training. The Squad-in-Training is a group of younger aspiring Squad members who learn skills and perform in a show at the end of the session. After dinner, once the Squad-in-Training workshops have ended, Squad members train disciplines of their choice; German Wheel, acrobatics, clowning, and aerials are among the most popular. Group act creation takes place as the Squad’s end-of-session show approaches.

During the summer, the Squad offers three ten-day community service-oriented projects. The projects are structured so that Squad members train for the first week and work on acts to perform and lead workshops for the public during the second week. Sometimes shows and workshops are open to the public, other times, a specific group will come for the program, i.e. a YMCA camp group or a HomeFront group. For these programs, the Squad puts on a short show followed by rotating workshops, such as aerials, balance (tightwire, Rolla Bolla, rolling globe), acrobatics, prop manipulation, and occasionally break dancing. Sometimes the Squad travels off site to assisted living facilities to do a show and chat with the patrons, or perform for other youth groups.

Although it is young yet, the Trenton Circus Squad has already begun to make an impression in the circus world and in the community. The Social Circus Program of Cirque du Soleil officially partnered with the Trenton Circus Squad this year. The Squad performed at the AYCO National Festival this past year. The Squad is making an impact in Trenton, bringing hundreds of kids through its doors for workshops. Elizabeth Forrey, a member of the Squad, explains that she has “made a lot of new friends that I wouldn’t have met otherwise” through the program. The Squad brings people together through teaching, performing, and learning, which is part of what makes it so rewarding. Elizabeth says that when “you teach a little kid a trick and then they get in on the first try… I always just feel so proud and happy.”

Suffice to say, the Trenton Circus Squad is one to watch.

-Em

INTERVIEW: Viveca Gardiner

Marzi got the chance to interview Viveca Gardiner, who works at Big Apple Circus, founded the NYC AYCO festival, has directed the youth program at Bindlestiff Family Cirkus for the last 14 years, and runs her own company, Playful Productions.

 

What are you working on right now?
I have a lot of different roles right now, for example with the Big Apple Circus I work on a program called Circus To Go that provides circus performers and performances for events outside of our ring, for example, special events, school assemblies, theater shows, or workshops. We book events for outside clients, people who pay us to come and put on a show in their town, and we also serve internal constituencies, so if the marketing department wants to book a performer for a special event, or if the development department wants to send performers to a fundraising event, then I coordinate all of that.

 

Are those performers from a separate cast than are in the touring Big Apple shows?
Mostly. We do use performers from the touring unit now and then, but the unit is in Boston and they have two shows a day and aren’t available often. So we usually use performers from our community programs, especially from our Clown Care program. We have 80 clowns in our Big Apple Clown Care program whowork in children’s hospitals around the country. I also coordinate our adaptive shows. This year we did four shows for children who are deaf or hard of hearing and/or blind or vision impaired and four shows for children on the autism spectrum. I also am a teacher in an after school circus program for children with incarcerated parents.

 

When did you get involved with circus?
I graduated from business school in 1993 and moved to New York, and I got a job in strategic planning and development for Big Apple Circus. I really came into circus backwards from everyone else I know; everyone else started as a kid with circus as a hobby or came from a circus family and learned the skills and started performing and moved from performing to management. I started in management and went the other way.

 

Since you came into the circus community later than most, like you said, what aspects of the community and circus arts appealed to you as an adult?
There are many things I like about the community. For example, I started juggling at 29, and it was very hard for me to learn since I had never done anything that was just up to me to do that way. Obviously some people are more talented than others, but nobody can do juggling or circus without putting work into it and nobody can be prevented from doing it if they do that. There’s no amount of money you can pay to be able to juggle five balls. It’s up to you how much work you want to put in and how much payoff you get out of it. When I work with children of incarcerated parents, in impoverished communities, or in special education, I like being able to give the kids control of their own outcomes, because they may not have control of many other aspects of their lives. I like that in circus, they can determine what they want to do with their own effort. That’s what I love about teaching and circus skills.

 

What’s different about working with youth versus working with adults?
I don’t know if much is different. Kids don’t know what’s hard, I suppose, and I think adults will say “I can’t do that, I can’t do that,” and they won’t bother to try, but kids will say, “I can’t do that,” and then they actually will.

Performing at Bindlestiff’s Cavalcade of Youth in Coney Island

We walked into the theater. The walls were covered with water stains, it was cold, worn out, and for some reason, there was a hot tub on the wall. But it was also amazing. It was a real theater, there were lights, curtains, and a backstage, it was an actual performance. It’s a chance that a lot of young performers don’t get, so that’s what the Cavalcade of Youth Performance does: it gives them that opportunity to be in a show.

This year I had the chance to perform a lyra solo that I had been working on for months. This was not my first time performing at the Cavalcade, but usually the rest of my youth troupe would be with me. A few of the other kids in my youth troupe decided to also do their own acts, so one of the coaches came for support. I started warming up but I only had 10 minutes until I had to run my act. I walked up to the stage and I realized the lyra was at least a foot higher than I had ever run my act with. But we didn’t have a choice, that was all the rigging we brought so the lyra could only get higher.

Learning to adapt and accept your surroundings is definitely one of the hardest struggles of performing. You have to come prepared and be in the mindset that things are going to go wrong and you can’t get hung up on it. Eventually I ran my act and it went surprisingly well. A few other performers went and what was interesting was all the tricks were so different. They were original. I’ve noticed that in a lot of shows with youth performers from the same schools, tricks can sometimes be repetitive or overused, but since everyone in this show was from different schools that wasn’t a problem.

As performers kept running their acts I started to talk with a few of them. I found out that people came from far and wide. One trapeze artist woke up at 4 in the morning and drove all the way down from Vermont!

Soon everyone crowded into the dressing room to start getting ready. It was cramped and cold but it was show time. One by one the performers went on stage, and all of a sudden the moment hit me: I was about to perform.

I walked on stage, the lights were bright, I couldn’t even see the audience. I walked over to where my act started, and just like that my music started and I was performing, and before I knew it, I was done.

For me there’s always a big buildup before my act where I get nervous and jumpy, but once I’m on stage nothing matters. I can just focus on me. No one is telling me what to do, or to point my toes. There’s no stopping the music to work on choreography, you just perform.

Overall I think The Cavalcade of Youth is an amazing opportunity for any young performer who wants to know what it’s like to perform, or even just meet new performers. It’s an amazing performance and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to continue exploring the circus world.

– Isabella

For more information about The Cavalcade of Youth, check out the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus website: http://www.bindlestiff.org/education/cavalcade-of-youth/

How To: Prep + Perform

Prep:
This month I had several performances with Orange County Aerial Arts and Circo Etereo. Orange County Aerial Arts is an amateur apprentice group and Circo Etereo is a professional performing group. There is a lot of preparation that goes into a whole weekend of performances. Because we performed several times a day, we had to switch up the performances to constantly entertain and intrigue the audience. This can cause a lot of confusion if there isn’t clear communication and adequate preparation.

To prepare for the weekend of performances, we went to rehearsal four to five times a week. This included Monday,Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We all had several different pieces to work on, so everyone was busy working with whomever they could. This made rehearsals very busy. Rehearsals would have been crazy if we hadn’t made a structure and followed it. An outline for a rehearsal would include who is needed to rehearse, for how long, and what everyone else was to be doing. After weeks of rigorous practice, we were ready.

But you aren’t done preparing until the music starts, signaling the beginning of your piece. Once I arrived at the event, I still had to complete my hair and makeup and make sure that I had all the costumes that I needed. Once I had decided that I had everything I needed and that my lipstick was perfect, I knew it was time to perform!
Preparation for a weekend of performances isn’t all work. We have plenty of fun in between our rehearsals. There was goofy faces, many inside jokes, shopping trips, and sleepovers. Over the years, my aerial arts friends and I have developed a bond, both professionally and personally. This bond not only makes performing together more fun, but it allows us to express that emotion through our pieces.

Perform:
This weekend of performances was at the Orange County Fairgrounds. It was a large outdoor venue. The event was a family, fun event that drew hundreds of children and adults.

I was performing with my studio’s professional group, Circo Etereo. I liked performing with Circo Etereo because it is mostly adults, so there wasn’t a lot of immature drama.
On the other hand, because it was our first day of performing, we were still figuring out how to run the show smoothly. We had to deal with all of the technical issues, such as how to start the music, stop the music, get the correct volume, and deal with the wind. On that particular day, the wind was 17 miles per hour.

To solve the problem of the wind, we had someone on call in case the performer needed help and we tied up the fabric in between performances. Another problem we ran into was that we had a routine that was not very family friendly and geared more toward an adult audience. So after consulting with many other performers, we decided to cut the routine. This meant changing our line up and needing to be flexible and adapt to the situation.

Aside from the problems and setbacks, the show was very fun to put on and watch. When I wasn’t performing, I was able to watch our show. We had professionals in their natural habitats and it was very exciting to watch them perform. Some performers had competed in aerial arts competitions and they were performing their winning routines. Overall, it was a very impressive show.

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Throughout the weekend, we offered hour long classes in between our performances. Anyone over the age of five could take these classes and learn a few basic skills on the fabric. For a couple hours I worked the front table and I was very surprised at the amount of people who wanted to try aerial arts. There were even a few moms who really wanted to give it a try. I could tell we inspired and intrigued the audience of all ages.

On Sunday, the atmosphere of the show was more playful and silly because I had all of my friends around and the day’s show was all kids’ performances with the amateur apprentice group. It was really fun to watch my friends perform their routines and have fun with the crowds. The performers’ ages ranged from 9 to 15 years old. Because of the age range, the older kids took care of the younger kids. I also had more fun on Sunday because I was the event photographer, so it was very fun to take candid pictures of the little kids. Also knowing aerial arts, made it easier to take some great action shots.

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One of the major issues on Sunday for me was the fact that I was getting sick. Because of the wind, I was getting allergies. By the time the day was half over, I was very tired and had a runny nose. I was supposed to be performing my competition-winning piece, but I did not feel well enough. My endurance continued to drop as the day progressed. I let my instructor know that I didn’t feel healthy enough to perform my routine. I was worried that he would be upset or disappointed in me for not performing my routine, but that was not the case. He told me that he could tell that I wasn’t well enough to perform and that he was proud of me for calling it.

Everyone else was pretty tired and this resulted in performers short cutting their routines and not making safe decisions that could potentially result in injury. My instructor is a stickler for safety and watches everyone like a hawk. This was why he was very proud of me for knowing my limits and staying safe because other, less experienced performers were not making those decisions independently. Thankfully no one got hurt, but everyone who wasn’t being safe got a stern talking to.

Aftermath:
After the shows, everyone celebrated and walked around the event and had a great time. Once the event ended, we all packed up all of our makeup and costumes. The rule was we were to take home all of our costumes, wash them, and return them to the costume box at our studio. Back at the studio, everyone was buzzing about how well the shows went and what routines we want to perform at future events. At the time of writing this, we have four routines from that event that we will be performing in future shows. Not only do I love performing because we all have so much fun together, but I love seeing the smiles on the faces in the audience. People of all ages let us know how amazed they are to witness this amazing sport!

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– Maddie

All photos by taken by Maddie!

Fleas Please!

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“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages! Step right up and witness The Great American Flea Circus! The only performing flea circus here in fabulous New York City featuring American born and raised fleas! Come see the parasitic become performer in amazing and dangerous feats! See Fleanina attempt to dive several thousand flea feet from the playing card diving board into the Chinese take-out container pool! Witness Fleatus, the world’s strongest flea, lift up the bar of a mouse trap, battling forces over ten thousand times greater than his own weight! And be sure to stay to for the grand finale as Evel Fleanievel gets shot out of the diet coke and Mentos cannon! All that and more right here at The Great American Flea Circus!”

That’s the opening pitch I give when I perform with my flea circus on the streets. I’m usually juggling as I initially draw a crowd in, and can be easily spotted from a distance with my knee-high stripped socks, bright green Converse, goggles, and lab coat with a giant flea on the back. My flea circus (pictured here), at its core, pokes fun at the presentation style of 20th century sideshow, and is a twelve minute comedy routine. There aren’t any real fleas, and all of the apparent feats that they perform are the result of my manipulating strings, levels, and tubes from the backside of the suitcase. But this was not always the case…

There are over two thousand different species of flea. The human flea, a flea that finds human blood delicious, has the ability to jump ten inches into the air (keep in mind that jumping up ten inches into the air for a flea would be like if you or I jumped over the Statue of Liberty). Watchmakers would take these fleas and construct little chains or harnesses around them in order to show how precise they could be with metal wires and how they could work effectively on such a small scale. One of the earliest records of this was in 1578, when a watchmaker by the name of Mark Scaliot locked a flea with a small lock consisting of eleven separate pieces to a small chain. Similarly, centuries later in 1742 watchmaker Sobieski Boverick had fleas pull small wagons, not unlike the ones pictured here.

chariot with two fleas

Although fleas were used to showcase people’s abilities for centuries, the fleas’ abilities were not truly showcased until the 1800s. Flea circuses were included in sideshow tents at traveling carnivals and circuses, and they remained a staple of the industry until the 1970s. Perhaps the most famous of all flea circuses during this time period was “Signor Bertolotto’s Extraordinary Exhibition of the Industrious Fleas,” owned by L. Bertolotto, which featured acts that often made fun of and spoofed the politics of the time.

Real, genuine flea circuses are rare and hard to come by now, although there are still a few performing here and there. Walt Noon, for example, is an inventor and magician who still performs sections of his flea circus with live human fleas. The more common flea circus nowadays is one that is mechanical, and runs on small motors and servos that are a controlled via a remote control in the performer’s pocket. These flea circuses without any fleas rely heavily on the performer’s ability to pantomime and pretend as if the fleas are really there. Although this reincarnation of the flea circus is nothing like the original, it allows the performer to present “acts” that wouldn’t have been possible if live fleas were being used.

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“And that’s it for The Great American Flea Circus! We are happy to carry on this tradition, and on behalf of myself and all of the fleas, we hoped you’ve enjoyed today’s performance and maybe even learned a thing or two about our little parasitic friends. Come back soon…and please check your dogs before you go!”

Matthew “Phineas” Lish, 18, is an award-winning clown and juggler. Notable performances include off-Broadway, the Ronald McDonald House, the Century Club with Dick Cavett, and guest ringmaster at the Big Apple Circus. He was offered a spot with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and currently holds the world record for juggling clubs while bouncing on a pogo stick.