In 2016, the famous traveling youth circus and camp, Circus Smirkus, opened its doors for the first time to adult campers, for an aptly-named “Big Kid Camp.”
Until now, Circus Smirkus has made its name working with children: every year, they select 30 performers aged 18 and under to perform in the Circus Smirkus traveling show under European big top tents, as well as offering a circus skills camp for kids at their home base in Greensboro, Vermont. I first heard about this unusual circus as a child, but didn’t live close enough to participate as a camper….and, well, lacked the kind of talent (exceptional) required for their touring group of performers.
Now in my 30s, however, as soon as Circus Smirkus announced their Big Kid Camp, I saw my chance. I signed up the moment that registration opened, and immediately enlisted my friend Emily to sign up too. (After all, with age comes the wisdom to bring reinforcements.)
So that’s how, in late August, I found myself sitting nervously in a Smirkle — which is a Smirkus version of a circle (please stop smirking) — as my fellow campers introduced themselves. There were a few parents of youth campers, but the group mostly consisted of a diverse group of fellow circus enthusiasts: a range of ages, genders, and athletic abilities. Of the group, Emily and I had travelled the greatest distance to get to camp, all the way from Wiesbaden Germany. I was done letting logistics hold me back from my circus dreams.
After our introductions, I all but skipped down the hill to Mamma Mia, one of the three circus tents, and embarked on my first class of the two-and-a-half day program, unable to contain my sheer glee. Those two-and-a-half days felt more like a week — in the best way. Every morning, we rotated through four 30-40 minute classes on core circus activities: juggling, aerial work, clowning, and acrobatics. The afternoons were filled with what circus dreams are made of: we ventured into tightrope, unicycling, stilt walking, wacky acrobatics (I think that made this one up), water spitting, hula hooping, and much more.
With so many unique activities to try, Big Kid Camp naturally begs the question “which one was my favorite,” but I find that my answer changes every time I am asked. Each activity had its own challenge and thrill. I went into the program excited for the acrobatics–and it delivered–but the clowning rotations were an unexpected hit.
Admittedly, I had some reservations about the art of clowning. The whole idea of clowns conjures images of Bozo or the scary clown from Stephen King’s “It,” and so I was pleased to discover a brand-new side of clowning. Our coaches taught us a French style that included customizable skits, and had us in stitches laughing as they demonstrated how to perform the skit we would be working on. I was really inspired by their talent and ability to make us laugh. Emily and I got to develop our version of a skit known as “Same, Same, Different” and perform it for the group. And while I expected to be struck by stage fright — acting in front of an audience brought the challenge up a notch beyond the physical demands of the other camp activities — our group of fellow campers and instructors were so supportive that it was strangely easy to step out on a limb and show off what we came up with.
In acrobatics, which I had been most looking forward to, we learned the building blocks for partner work, and how to do circus style forward rolls. In later classes we progressed to more difficult partner stunts and attempted tricks off the trampoline. It was beautiful to watch other campers launch themselves into the air for the first time, attempt a twist, or dust off gymnastics tricks from childhood. Each person seemed to invite their inner child to come out and play-unharnessed joy ensued. The coaches explained each skill with equal parts humor and clarity, and the motto became “Safety + Magic = Fun.”
After playing hard all day, our evenings were filled with themed dinners, a spirited 1920s murder mystery, campfires, and fire juggling (though only by the experienced campers and coaches — the risk of setting our hair on fire was not supposed to be a part of the experience). While there were no physical fitness pre-requisites for the camp, I silently thanked my fitness mentor throughout for helping Emily and I build our strength and endurance beforehand, so we would not be on the sidelines after the first morning.
Midway through camp, Circus Smirkus creator, Rob Mermin, dropped by for a visit. He spent nearly an hour answering our questions, and sharing stories about the perseverance it took to stick with his vision in creating Circus Smirkus. And then, all of a sudden, the not-quite three days were up. I was sorry when the circus camp came to a close, but Circus Smirkus left me with one mantra, “WE LIVE CIRCUS.” In other words: you don’t have to have perfect balance and talent to try your hand at the circus. You just have to be brave enough to try.
Jennifer Brodowski works for the U.S Army in Civil Service, stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany.