Young Stars Shine at the Circus

Laaadieees and gentlemen! May I turn your attention to the center ring, where two young boys will attempt to leap over ponderous pachyderms - and keep their grades up at the same time! This amazing feat requires the greatest concentration, so I must ask for absolute quiet.

Ever since Toby Tyler (of children's book fame) ran away to join the circus, children have dreamed about life under the big top. No chores, no homework, no one telling you what to do. Make friends with the elephants. Have all the popcorn and cotton candy you can eat.

But life on the road isn't all peanuts and caramel apples, say Gene McMillian, 14, and Josh Edmondson, 10, members of the Chicago Kidz tumbling troupe. After all, you have to perform every night - and three times on Saturdays. Plus train for at least two hours a day.

Oh, and did I mention school? Ringling Brothers has a traveling school for its young performers, and the two boys were getting ready for exams.

"You do get tired," Gene says ruefully, shaking his head. But, he's quick to add, his teachers are great. "They really want to help you learn."

And traveling is great - even though Gene's been so many places he can't remember them all. You get to see all different kinds of animals, he says. Bobcat, deer. Once, traveling by train through the Rocky Mountains, he saw something he swears was a white tiger.

You wouldn't think deer would seem very exciting if you live next-door to a camel. But Gene seems to love animals, which comes in handy in his line of work: You need to be on good terms with elephants when your job is leaping over them in a high-flying act in the center ring.

The big top in this case is Boston's FleetCenter. The dressing area is just to the right of the elephants, llamas, and show horses, which are standing in a row on straw thrown over the gray concrete floor. Boston will be home for two weeks, and then it's back on the train.

Gene, a teenager from Los Angeles, is an old pro. He has performed with the Chicago Kidz for four years. On the night I attended, Gene was the only one to flip over four elephants.

To someone who never could get beyond a front handspring, his feats are nothing short of amazing. He took up tumbling 11 years ago at age 3, with his dad acting as his coach. He auditioned for a spot on the Chicago Kidz at age 10 with his mom's encouragement. He's fallen out of trees and crashed into gates while learning street tumbling, but Gene says his failures just made him "want to do it over and over again till I got it right."

Josh taught himself tumbling at age 5 by watching street performers. Later, he began working with a Missouri tumbling troupe. He was 10 when he left home to join the circus - with his parents' permission.

No matter what kind of mood they're in, Gene and Josh say they love performing. "It cheers me up. I like to do my best for people," Gene says. What he likes best, though, is when there are kids in the front row. "I love performing for other kids."

While juggling work and school can be tough even for professional acrobats, Gene says they still have plenty of time for fun. "We have a good time, just like everybody else. We like to play board games and go to the mall." The boys only get to see their family on brief vacations around the holidays, so the tumbling troupe is their surrogate family. "We're all like brothers. We are brothers," Gene says.

Like brothers, they come in for their share of ribbing.

When asked what their best trick is, Josh pipes up: "Front-and-a half."

"Naw, no," Gene laughs. "Half- twist."

"All right, half-twist," Josh says.

"He's a really good tumbler, though," Gene affirms, making sure I don't get the wrong idea.

While they may be far away from their parents, the boys still have people looking out for them. Their coach is Janus Novak. "He's a really good coach," Gene says. "He doesn't just teach us tricks. He's teaching us to be responsible." Their other guardian is Yule the Clown. "He stays with us on the train and makes sure we stay out of trouble. So really, we've got supervision, just like everybody else."

Gene thinks this will be his last year with the circus. "I'm ready to go home and be a kid again," he says, laughing at the thought of retiring at the ripe old age of 15. He's got his sights set on the Olympics, although he knows that will take a lot of training. He also wants to get a degree in storm-chasing so he can chase tornadoes. In the meantime, he plans to watch the sky, study the stars, and sleep.

And Josh says he misses his family, so his first year with Ringling Brothers will also be his last. He still loves tumbling, though, and plans to return to his troupe in Missouri.

When asked if they have any words for their fans, the two issue an invitation.

"Come and see the circus," Gene says.

"And when you come to see the circus, I hope you have fun," Josh adds, smiling on his way to work.

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