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What is more fun than a circus? From the classic romanticized version of the circus train rolling into town, raising the big top and assembling three rings for a never-before-seen performance to today’s arenas packed full of families with kids holding lighted spinning toys and sticky cotton candy, while holding their breath as the entertainers show off their death-defying acts: The circus retains its magical allure.
The shows have altered over the years to accommodate the changing times and the political correctness of the day. People no longer pay 50 cents extra to see the bearded lady, and Ringling Brothers has announced it will discontinue featuring elephants in its show. What have remained constant, however, are the aerial acts, the humor and the fun.
In Kentucky, we can get a taste of the circus at times other than when it arrives in the closest major city. Circus schools, which focus on skills not taught on a sports field or anywhere else, are gaining in popularity. And for good reason. The dexterity it takes to ride a unicycle, the balance it takes to walk a tightrope, and the downright nerve it takes to perform as a clown are skills that translate into confidence from which kids can benefit.
Paul Miller, owner of Circus Mojo in Ludlow, knows the value of a clown, a juggler and an acrobat. A former clown for Ringling Brothers, Miller feels the world needs these performers, just as much as these entertainers need an outlet to show off their skills. And so he caters to both.
Miller describes Circus Mojo as a circus arts program for all ages and abilities. Whether he’s teaching children how to jog on a giant spool, giving lessons in tightrope walking, or making kids laugh with light clowning around while visiting the cancer wing at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Miller keeps his mojo flowing.
Home base is the former Ludlow Theatre, right in the middle of the river town in northern Kentucky. With the help of the city’s fire department, which turned the theater’s interior demolition into training exercises a few years ago, the inside was gutted, making room for a perfect, wide-open venue to teach high-wire acts, trapeze tricks and how to walk on a four-foot ball. It is there that Miller and his team teach weekly skills classes and host circus-themed birthday parties. Each summer, Circus Mojo holds weeklong summer camps that bring in children from all around the area.
Classes and camps are open to kids ages 7-17, and sometimes Circus Mojo offers special classes and workshops, called Circus Silly Willy, for 4- to 6-year-olds. Miller describes all classes as multidimensional, combining humor, grace and athleticism in a noncompetitive environment.
The facilities in Ludlow are ADA accessible, and Circus Mojo offers CircAbility, a program for mentally and physically disabled participants that empowers them through music, improvisation and instruction.
“The circus is a lighthearted world,” Miller said, “so we combine learning and laughter to teach new skills according to each person’s abilities. And what we find is that everyone has a place to shine at the circus.”
That includes those in the business world. Circus Mojo offers corporate workshops that feature team-building retreats, during which Miller and the other instructors incorporate exercises that stress the importance of inter-reliance along with the ability to have fun while doing it. They teach groups to work together, away from the conference room, which helps the participants see each other in a different way.
From the boardroom to the waiting room, Miller has found that everyone needs a little circus in their life.
It is hard to believe that a circus could find a home in a hospital, but that is exactly what happened when Miller and his team started making appearances at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
In a hospital waiting room, a place usually filled with apprehension and anxiety, the Circus Mojo team entertains and goofs around with patients, siblings and parents.
“Our patients absolutely love the Circus Mojo team,” said Sandy Singleton, a business director in the hospital’s Orthopaedic Clinic waiting room. “Many are here to be treated for fractured bones and are in pain and afraid. The team has them smiling in no time at all, teaching them tricks, involving them in various activities, and telling funny jokes.”
Under the direction of the nursing staff, the circus team visits young patients in their hospital rooms, teaching hat tricks, feather balancing and even plate spinning, all of which can be done from a bed.
“Taking their mind off their condition and giving them something else to concentrate on gives the kids confidence and allows them to have their own special skill they can share with visitors, caregivers and even their doctors,” Miller said.
Circus Mojo clowns around with the kids but not with the painted faces and big noses that can scare a child.
“We go out of our way to not wear makeup,” Miller said. “The kids know we are silly when they see us coming down the hall wearing crazy striped pants or a tutu. That is something they don’t normally see in the hospital.”
The Louisville Turners are part of the American Turners, which started as a gym and social club for German immigrants in the mid-1800s. While the Louisville Turners have been promoting physical fitness for more than 100 years, the circus program has been around for almost half of its history.
In the early 1940s, the gym was used by children learning gymnastics and shared with a group of professional circus performers who wintered in Louisville. When the children needed funds to pay for travel to a gymnastics competition, the Turners decided to put on a show for the public and charge admission. They tapped their circus friends as the headline acts, and people came in droves to see the performance.
The show surpassed attendance expectations, and since the end of World War II, the organization has invited the public to a spectacular circus production each year. Over the years, the professional acrobats began to winter elsewhere, but the Turners Circus continues by featuring children and adults who attend classes and perfect their act. The show regularly features participation by more than 200 performers.
The Louisville Turners offers about 20 different classes, which are held weekly throughout the year. These include gymnastics classes with a circus foundation and aerial acts that consist of both trapeze and aerial fabric. Also known as tissues or silks, aerial fabric is a long piece of flowing silky material suspended from the ceiling. The performers create an act made up of wrapping, posing and dropping while hanging on to the fabric.
Cindy Law, president and gym director, has been involved in trapeze, Spanish webs, swinging ladders, aerial fabric and fire eating, while also dabbling in Lyra, a circular steel apparatus resembling a hula hoop that is suspended from the ceiling.
“It is fun to get your feet off the ground,” she said. “Things you never thought you’d do, you do.”
Law has seen generations of families participate in the circus, hosting participants from age 2 to 86.
“It is such a fun workout, building strength and confidence,” Law said. “Our theory is: ‘Everyone is trainable.’ And they are.”
One of those multigenerational families belongs to Lynley Elliott. Her parents were involved while she and her siblings participated in the circus. As an adult, Elliott now wears many hats with the organization, and her own children are members.
“My mom was not able to join as a child but always wanted to. So she got all five of her kids involved as we were growing up,” she said. “She eventually became the ring master and circus director, and my dad, who was a welder, worked on the rigging and technical aspects. Even today, in her 60s, Mom still teaches and performs fire eating and tightrope.”
Abbie Springer, who serves as volunteer marketing director, became involved in the Turners when she enrolled her daughter in classes as therapy for hearing loss.
“She needed to learn to take verbal direction from people other than her parents,” Springer said. “So she began taking tightrope lessons.”
The lessons were a fantastic option for the therapy, but the whole family benefited as well. They all got involved.
To participate in the circus, each family is obligated to contribute a minimum of 15 hours of volunteer time. No matter the age, there is a job available.
“As an all-volunteer organization, we need everyone’s help,” Springer said. “Everyone’s family joins together to pull this off, and we become a community family. There is nothing else like this.”
Each year, the Louisville Turners tries to offer a variety of classes, but this mainly depends on access to an instructor. Over the years, the circus has offered classes in contortion, fire eating, juggling and hooping, but the aerial classes are the foundation classes.
“People teach this and learn this because they love it,” Springer said. “When you become involved in the Turners Circus, you see that we really do have something for everyone.”
Elliott explains that people from all walks of life and all ability levels are welcome at the circus.
“The Turners Circus is the foundation for our family,” she said. “We not only reap all the benefits of physical exercise, but it is family togetherness time, volunteer time—and serves our community by giving back to the organization.”