NORMAL — Safety harness adjusted, the aspiring circus performer stepped on the platform with a look that appeared to be part concentration and part apprehension.
Her partner on the back of the Russian swing counted as each swing moved the platform higher: “One, two, next one ….”
On “Three!” she leaped into the air, high above the cushioned mats at the Horton Fieldhouse south gym, landing gently, her face split by a smile, ready to high-five her fellow campers.
This isn’t your average summer camp.
While one group was leaping off the Russian swing, others were hanging from the triple trapeze, walking a tight wire, doing tricks on a trampoline and maneuvering unicycles around obstacles — activities few adults would venture to try.
“They’re just full of energy. … The younger they are, well, they have more courage than we do,” said Rob Caluza of Naperville, an Illinois State University student and member of Gamma Phi Circus who is working at the circus camp.
For some, you might say the circus is in the blood.
Ten-year-old Ronnell Fleming came from Delavan, Wis., for the camp because “I really like circus.” Her father and mother, Ron and Nell Fleming, performed with Gamma Phi while they were students at ISU.
The trapeze is her favorite. “You can do all kinds of tricks on it and it’s what my dad did,” she said.
The blood line goes back even further for 12-year-old Christopher Atayde Stoniev. He and his brother Christian, an ISU senior, are fifth-generation circus people. Their grandfather is a manager of the oldest circus in Mexico.
“It’s good for him to be with kids his age. That’s difficult when traveling in a circus,” said Christian, a member of Gamma Phi Circus who also has performed professionally.
Anna Trimpe of Bloomington said, “I’ve been going to the real circus for 10 years and really like it.” She’s 10.
After years of asking her mother to let her go to circus camp, her grandfather, Doug Welch, paid for her to go this year.
“It’s actually a lot different than what I expected. I didn’t think we’d be able to do so many acts,” she said.
The hoop is the hardest, she said, especially a trick called a “star.” To demonstrate, she jumped on a hoop suspended from the ceiling and, through a series of maneuvers, made her way to the top of the hoop, where she turned upside down and stretched out her arms parallel to the floor. She made it look easy.
Circus and camp director Marcus Alouan said the camp does more than teach circus tricks.
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“It keeps them active and shows them ways to be physically fit,” Alouan said. “Teamwork, trust, cooperation … overcoming fear. The benefits are endless.”
And the benefits go beyond the young campers — who include preschoolers for the first time this year.
Members of the Gamma Phi troupe work at the camp. “They usually are back stronger the next year. Having taught the skills, they really understand it better,” Alouan said.
18 years of campers
This is the 18th year Illinois State University has been offering circus camps for youngsters, and interest continues to grow.
“We try to teach as much as we can of the circus arts in one week,” said Deb Wylie, Gamma Phi Circus program director.
Those “circus arts” include trampoline, triple trapeze, unicycle, juggling, tight wire and Russian swing.
After two, one-week basic camps filled quickly, ISU added a third for July 23-27. Registration for the third basic camp will be accepted through July 17, as long as openings are available. Information is at www.gammaphicircus.ilstu.edu.
Marcus Alouan, camp and circus director, said the popularity of the camps “shows how much people appreciate what we do.”
A two-week advanced camp takes place July 9-20. A trapeze camp took place this week.
The newest offerings are Circus Tots and Circuslings — “like ducklings,” explained Wylie — which gave youngsters under age 7 “kind of a toe in the water,” she said.
Often they have attended the Gamma Phi Circus and are interested in what they saw, but are not ready for an all-day, full-week experience, she said.
Instead, they meet two mornings for 1½ hours each, and check out various stations where they can learn such things as juggling light objects, spinning platters, tumbling and tight wire. Today is the last day for the Tots and Circuslings.
The final day of each camp features a “performance” for the campers’ families and friends.
Alouan has noticed a lot more out-of-town campers in recent years. “There are not very many things like this out there,” he said.
Xanthe Schandellemeier drove 10 hours with her parents from Pittsburgh to attend camp. Asked if the long drive was worth it, the petite 7-year-old in the “All-American Girl” shirt smiled and nodded her head.