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May 8, 2007

After-school acrobatics give Uptown kids a leg up

Before anybody cracks open a book at the Alternatives Community Center after-school tutoring program, the students from Uptown who gather there three days a week have to learn to juggle, stilt-walk, unicycle, swing from a trapeze, and act like a clown.

“What’s going on here?” you’re probably wondering. “Are these kids supposed to be learning circus skills or academic skills?” The answer is both. Homework & Circuswork, as this after-school program is called, is one of the many programs run by CircEsteem, an organization that teaches kids circus skills as a way to help them build their self-esteem.

Founded six years ago by ex-Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown Paul Miller with just a few donated props, CircEsteem now provides circus workshops and programs for kids in several Chicago neighborhoods, holds summer and winter circus camps, and offers scholarships to help students in the programs pay for college. They also perform at various events nationwide and abroad.

Last Saturday and Sunday, the kids from CircEsteem exhibited their talents at the Sixth Annual Spring Circus at Alternatives. As I walked into the auditorium of Alternatives and encountered the smell of popcorn and the red, white, and blue stripes on the back wall, I knew I was in for some good old circus fun.

The circus opened with an act by Cornell Freeney on the Gym Wheel, an apparatus consisting of two large metal hoops connected at several points. Audience members watched with open mouths as Freeney slid in and out of the sides of the wheel, seemingly escaping serious injury by mere milliseconds and still gracefully manipulating the apparatus. Freeney, who started with CircEsteem six years ago as a novice, will be competing in the World Gym Wheel Championships in Austria on May 17.

Following the gym wheel act, a few of the novices demonstrated their newly acquired plate-spinning skills, much to the delight of parents in the audience. A tug-of-war then ensued, with a theme of individuality versus monotony, during which all of the tug-of-warriors wore paper sack clothes. To finish the act, tugger Rackim Ramsey walked across the stretched rope in a move I interpreted to mean the elimination of antagonism between the two sides.

Rose Heltzer, Ali Haymes, and Maria Clement gave a delightful performance on the trapeze, delicately weaving in and out of various poses and swinging above each other’s heads while hanging only from their ankles. One can only imagine the effort and time they must have put into developing the act.

In addition to these acts, there was a rolling globe race, a bubble-and-whip act, some salsa dancing, tightrope walking, unicycling, stilt-walking, silk and Spanish web. Of particular note were the Clement sisters—Maria, Teresa, and Viviane—whose adagio act was a grand spectacle of their strength and flexibility. They balanced on each other to arrange themselves into several gravity-defying structures. Ramsey, in addition to being a tightrope walker, was also a very talented contortionist, twisting his body into impressive and beautiful positions.

Although many of the kids were beginners, none of them seemed to be intimidated by the crowd. Not only were they able to manipulate the circus toys, they were also very good at working the audience—covering up smoothly whenever they made drops and encouraging the audience to cheer whenever they landed a cool trick. They probably learned from older kids like Mark Dennison, who gave a great performance on the Diablo, a Chinese folk toy consisting of an hourglass-shaped yo-yo manipulated by a string running between two sticks. Together with Freeney and some younger boys, Dennison showed his Diablo skills with some quality showmanship.

The finale, a fast-paced act that involved all the circus skills, was a big burst of color and flying objects (including kids). Seeing the kids perform these astonishing circus acts, one could not help but be impressed by their effort and dedication. Though Miller may call himself the “Chief Goof Officer” of CircEsteem, the Spring Circus showed clearly that the kids and staff of CircEsteem aren’t goofing around during practice.