Sixteen-year-old Mariah Fraker waved her hands wildly as she described the moment seven years ago when she realized she wanted to be a circus performer. She was a fourth grader, hanging upside down from monkey bars with a friend.
"We were like, 'I wonder what trapeze is like,'" recalled the Washington, D.C., resident in hot pink sneakers and bright yellow shorts over spandex pants printed with neon images of Las Vegas. "'I wonder if there's such a thing as circus camp.'"
Turns out, there is: It's Vermont's Circus Smirkus, and Fraker has attended every summer since.
"This is my favorite place in the world," she said as she took a break from clowning and juggling at the final camp session of the summer at Burke Mountain Academy. "It goes circus camp and then Las Vegas, and that says a lot."
Circus Smirkus began in a 200-year-old farmhouse in Greensboro. Since 1990, it has offered one- and two-week summer camps, as well as a two-day starter camp, for kids ages 5 to 18. The group's main event is the two-month-long Big Top Tour, for which kids audition each summer; this year's tour wrapped up in mid-August.
The world is wackier at Circus Smirkus — and that's the point. The day I visited, camp director Megan Rose was wearing bear ears. It was Wild Wednesday, which is the day after Tutu Tuesday, so counselors and campers sported animal-themed clothes and accessories.
"It's perfectly normal to wear weird things on your head," Rose said.
Also normal here: Unicyclists spinning, rolling and occasionally tumbling on a patch of pavement near the parking lot. Inside one of the four brightly colored circus tents, kids dangled and twirled from long swaths of fabric. Another tent was filled with equipment — stilts, mini trampolines, a Chinese pole — and kids learning to do an acrobatic trick called a two-high.
"It's standing on each other," explained Rose.
This was the advanced session, for which campers age 12 to 18 have to audition. But acrobatic skills aren't all that matters when it comes to camp admission. Said Rose, "It's based on attitude and answering questions like 'What does respect mean?' 'Are you willing to work hard?'"
Zach Ellis is. The 13-year-old camper from New York has been perfecting his unicycling skills over the last two years. "It's a lot about practicing," he told me. "You can learn the technique of riding very easily, but it's just constantly practicing, riding and riding, and getting a feel for what it is."
When it comes to circus arts, honing technical skills such as acrobatics, aerials, juggling and clowning is key. So is learning to engage an audience and improvise. In a performance class, for example, campers might imitate different animals or dance as if the floor were on fire.
Working together as a team is paramount, offered assistant camp director Mary Blouin Auffert. "[Circus is] a wonderful marriage of art and athletic stuff, so you have to depend on one another a lot in order to make stuff happen," she said.
Campers may be focused on stilt walking and backflips, but there's more to Smirkus than circus. "Kids can come here and feel safe to be themselves," said Rose, "to try out a different version of themselves, try new things without feeling like they're going to be judged."
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