They flip and twirl on silk ropes, dance on big beach balls, jump rope on unicycles, swoop on trapezes and, above all, have tons of fun while on a steep learning curve.
"They've got play and they've got learning, and you can't have one without the other," says Lorenzo SantaBarbara, owner of Ashland's Le Cirque Centre, where he offers a series of circus arts summer camps for kids. "It's about building self-esteem."
On his first day of camp, Liam Pettee, 9, gets up on a three-foot-wide ball and (as SantaBarbara keeps his hands close to the boy) learns the knack of moving feet quickly in small steps while looking straight ahead and making it go forward, backward and side to side.
Turned loose on the "silks" — long ropes of colorful silk — the kids quickly take to a range of circus tricks with names like Diaper Flip and Monkey Straddle, wrapping their legs about the silks, going inverted, walking on their hands while suspended, flipping out onto the mats.
It may look easy, but it's no walk in the park and it can stretch and chafe in weird new ways.
"Circus hurts! Say that to yourself," SantaBarbara tells the kids, advising them to wear longer pants to prevent thigh burns. "Sometimes it hurts my back and hands, but tomorrow I'll be stronger."
The seemingly impossible unicycle is a gadget that comes quickly to young ones, and SantaBarbara has them pick it up by leaning against the wall, taking baby steps out away from it. It's a talent best learned in small tries.
"But it's not about circus tricks," he cautions. "It's about them. It's all about building self-esteem, and it's about family. The moms get very involved in it, and when they come to pick up their kids and see them happy and confident, the parents feel happy.
"It's not about competition. That doesn't make them feel happy — and parents who are into competition don't come back."
SantaBarbara tells the story of one mom who brought her daughter to camp and mentioned that a teacher diagnosed the child with "mild autism." It turned out she was simply "an intellectual who needed to get into her body," SantaBarbara says.
Parent Gretski Lieberman says, "It's been a huge confidence booster for my daughters. Maya (8) loves circus. It's creative and non-competitive. She does a lot of independent things, and it's incredible fun. It's super hard but she shimmies right up the silks."
"It's fun, challenging and I learn a lot," says Maya.
SantaBarbara, a dancer and performer for 30 years, with a bachelor's degree in dance and a master's in education, came to Ashland a decade ago and built his weekly classes and weeklong summer camps by word-of-mouth — and has put on many kid-filled productions, including "Cats" (with lots of unicycles) and "Alice In Wonderland."
His school, Le Cirque Centre, is exchanging students this summer with Seattle School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts — with exchange students appearing in performances.
Le Cirque is in the Hersey Street Business Park and offers three camp sessions for kids 5 to 10 years old, with the last one July 30 to Aug. 9.
It includes a range of other circus arts, including flying bungees, flip bungees, trapeze, aerial skills, trampoline, rock (wall) climbing, cloud swing, aerial hoops and dance wall, which involves bouncing and spinning off a wall while on rappelling ropes and harness. Cost is $125 per weeklong camp.
Shorter camps, for teens, will be from 3 to 5 p.m. Aug. 16 to 20. They are $90.
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John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.