Kids are the stars in this circus

Kids develop their potential and discover they can do more than they ever thought by learning circus acts in their own hometowns.

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It turns out you don't have to run away to join the circus. It will come to you. At the Jenison High School auditorium in Michigan, a three-ring circus is in full swing. Aerial artists, acrobats, contortionists, clowns, the lion tamer – even the lion – all are 18 or younger. Teens run the lights and the sound system. The only adult in the show is the one who plays the janitor.

The big top has come to town courtesy of Starfish Circus (www.starfishcircus.com). This program is designed by Allison Williams, founder of the Aerial Angels, a troupe of female street performers who have won Most Daring Act at the London Fringe Festival, among other awards.

The Starfish Circus, designed for up to 50 children, is a week-long program meant to boost kids' confidence in their athletic abilities. Four coaches came to Jenison for a week, teaching children as young as 6 how to be Toby Tylers. At the end, they put on a performance for the community, with all proceeds going to the school.

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"I always dreamed of being some sort of act in the circus," says Keegan Kaltrider, an 11-year-old who brought his unicycle to tryouts. "I started a clown club at my school."

The coaches created a solo clowning and magic routine for Keegan, in which he juggled, balanced on a rolling ball, and escaped from a straitjacket. The unicycle, of course, featured prominently.

A positive attitude and a willingness to have fun are musts, the coaches explained on the first day; years of gymnastics classes are not. In fact, at tryouts, some of the performers couldn't do a cartwheel. Eleven-year-old Joe Rockey, on learning he was going to do a solo trapeze act in the circus, asked, "What's a trapeze?"

"This thing you were cool on," says Ms. Williams, patting it.

The coaches of Starfish Circus want to build a sense of inner strength and confidence in their performers. "I haven't done anything before," says Leslie Walcott, 12, who performs on the hoops, where she does a convincing job of looking as though she's spent years flipping upside down and hanging by one leg.

"The last time I took gymnastics, I was 4," says her friend Natalie Krzewski, also 12, who performs on the aerial silks.

After a week of rehearsals, Ms. Williams is feeling upbeat. "I think they're in great shape," she says after the first full run-through Thursday evening. The hoop performers have put together an elaborate routine, and the aerial performers "have learned just about as much as a reasonably fit human can in one week."

It's the dinner break, but there's not a whole lot of chewing going on. Children and teens are swarming all over the hoops and silks. Joe is trying to find a way to work one more trick into his trapeze act. Lauren Labozzetta, 7, is happily perched in a hoop, having thwarted the coaches' efforts to let her go home early and rest.

"I love that this has become their playground," says Ms. Williams. "It's not some sacred circus thing. I want them to get the feeling that they have this cool skill that they love and not everybody can do."

Natalie, Leslie, and Ben Avery, 12, all agree the week has been a lot of fun, and all would sign up for Starfish again. "When you learn a trick, it's like 'Wow, I can actually do this,' " says Natalie.

"I think a lot of schools should do it," says Amanda Morse, who plans to study acting at Oklahoma State University in the fall. This is her third time working with the Aerial Angels. "It teaches determination and a sense of self. After the first couple of days, your muscles really hurt. You're thinking, 'I can't do it. I can't do it.' " It turns out, she says, you can.

But none of them are envisioning a future in greasepaint and sequins. "You couldn't make a living that way," says Ben. When it's pointed out that many people do, including his coaches, he amends, "Well, I couldn't, anyway."

Ben's dad, Todd Avery, is the drama teacher at Jenison High and performs a comic routine as a bumbling janitor in the show. Ben's brother, Zach, is the youngest member of the troupe and a natural-born scene-stealer. The 6-year-old plays a lion cub who chases Drake VanDam (a purple-haired high-schooler with a bullwhip solo) offstage. He's so cute that even after a week of watching him, the teenage girls break into involuntary "Awwws" as he scampers onstage. And this is without a costume.

When asked if anything about the aerial routine gives him pause, Ben says, "When you flip upside down. That's the scary part."

Of course, by "flip upside down," Ben means climb halfway to the ceiling on suspended silks, let go with both hands, and rocket backward in an ankle dive, suspended only by the fabric wrapped around his feet. The evening before the circus, he successfully performs the trick for the first time, and the usually laid-back 12-year-old yells out, "That was so awesome!"

"That moment sums up Starfish for me," says Melissa Marie Wilhelm, who is the director of the circus. "They come in saying, 'I won't ever do that.' All week, that's the one trick where they're thinking, 'Nuh, uh!' Now, every other time in his life when he thinks, 'I can't do that,' he'll have that [memory to help him]."

A big-top dream come true

It takes creativity to pay for college, but Allison Williams wasn't interested in waiting tables. Instead, she took up fire-eating.

"I met some woman in a nightclub [who was a fire-eater], and she said, 'Oh, you could never learn to do it.' And I thought, 'Not only am I going to do it, I'm going to do it better than you,' " Ms. Williams recalls. "And I do."

But her desire to perform dates further back than college. "I always wanted to be in the circus," she says. "In my mid-20s, I thought, 'Yeah, I guess I'm never going to be a trapeze artist,' " says Ms. Williams, who hopes her example can show women not to give up. "Now, five or six years later, I'm a full-time trapeze artist."

But her chief claim to fame in the Aerial Angels is her bullwhip routine. She started learning when she was 15 and is now, she says, "arguably, one of the top three women bullwhip artists in the world" – one who is able to snap a stalk of celery out of a man's mouth.

Does it sound like fun to be a circus performer? You'd better enjoy living out of a suitcase, say both Ms. Williams and Zay Weaver, the Angels' associate artistic director. Between May 31 and Sept. 4 this year, Ms. Williams has a total of 6-1/2 days off, traveling "as far north as Alaska and as far south as Key West."

Ms. Weaver, who studied acting before joining the Aerial Angels three years ago, loves getting paid to travel across North America and Europe, but also likes the philosophy behind the act. "Street performance is ... a really great way to reach out to people who otherwise wouldn't go in to a theater," she says.

Ms. Weaver even likes the passing of the hat for money. "People can choose how much the show is worth to them," she says.

But what if they put in only a quarter? "It's been a long time since we got a quarter," says Ms. Weaver. "In fact, "[t]he last time [we got a quarter] was in London, Ontario, and a man came up to us after the show and said, 'I really loved the act. I just got fired from my job, and this is all I can afford.' He gave us 50 cents."

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