PITTSFIELD, MASS. — In days gone by, many a child's fondest dream of independence and rebellion was to run away and join the circus. But these days, parents are spending good money to actually send their kids off to the circus - circus camp, that is, and the opportunity is providing kids age 8 to 13 the chance to follow their dreams in the kind of safe, supportive environment that even an overprotective mother could love.
The six-year-old Berkshire Circus Camp here draws roughly 60 children from six states to a three-week program each summer. (With a return rate of campers between 40 and 50 percent, there is usually a waiting list of an additional 20 to 25 hopefuls.)
The day camp is the brainchild of circus enthusiast Richard Hamilton, the administrative director. Kids work with a team of circus professionals to master tumbling and clowning, juggling, and stilt-walking -as well as the trapeze, rolling globes, the tightrope, acrobatics, the jump rope, and the unicycle.
The camp is one of roughly a dozen circus youth programs ranging from one-day workshops to the intensive training at the international Circus Smirkus boarding camp. Hosted by Berkshire Community College, the Berkshire Circus Camp is low-key, noncompetitive, and strictly recreational.
"We're not interested in selling circus as a career," Mr. Hamilton explains. "We want them to have a good time, feel better about themselves, grow physically, and learn more about what they can do."
And the side benefits can be significant. In addition to balance and coordination, campers learn such qualities as perseverance, patience, self-confidence, decisionmaking, and self-discipline. Michael Anthony, in his fifth year at the camp, says the learning process will benefit him him for the rest of his life.
"It's hard work," he says. "You have to practice a lot and give it time, not expect to do it right away. That teaches you patience, how to spend time toward getting a good grade, how to stay with a sport and not be a quitter. And we learn teamwork, how to help other kids so we can put together a nice show."
The camp also teaches children how to overcome their fears, taking a holistic approach. "We don't let anyone say 'I can't' or 'I won't,'" Hamilton says.
"The first week kids try every skill we offer," he says. "Then pick one they want to concentrate on, and we build the show around what they can do."
The program is unusual in its approach to exposing children to all aspects of the circus. Each camp day (9 a.m.- 4 p.m.) intersperses circus skills with presentations centering on the history of the circus, cooperative games for teamwork and trust-building, and swimming. During arts and crafts, campers help make publicity posters for the community and decorations for the field house, and paint the props and set, which includes a real circus ring.
The camp culminates in two public performances, a traditional one ring set-up with a live band, and a real circus wagon and concessions, which campers help with when they're not performing.
The circus wouldn't exist without the community, which helps with everything from scholarships to costumes and props, according to Alexandra Warshaw of Berkshire Community College's community services department.
"It's become a real, permanent tradition with a life of its own as part of the community," says Michael Killian, artistic director of the circus.
At the performances, which routinely draw more than 500 people, the kids positively glow. Each gets at least one opportunity to shine, whether for a simple series of tumbling turns or a more skilled walk across the high wire. There's lots of humor, glimpses of real talent, some obvious nerves, and a few mishaps, but there is an "I gave it my all" quality to nearly every attempt - if it doesn't work the first time, try again, then graciously acknowledge appreciative applause for the effort.
"The big thing they learn from this is how to get out in front of a huge group of people they don't know and be able to perform in a very controlled and professional manner doing something they couldn't do three weeks ago," Mr. Killian says. "They get a real picture of what it takes to master something within a short period of time ... and they leave with a little more self-confidence than they came in with."
*For more information call 413-499-4660 x379 or visit cc.berkshire.org/~stdavis/cir_top.html
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society