Back on the Bar

Posted on March 15th, 2013 by Viveca in Circus Life


In February, I left NYC and re-joined Circus of the Kids, a traveling program I’d worked with in the past. I’ll be teaching circus skills to kids in Brewster, NY; Spencer, OK; and Brooklyn, MI.

We’re on our first stop now, at a home/school for kids from kindergarten through twelfth grade with severe emotional, social, behavioral, and learning problems. Every day we see shrieking kids pinned to the floor in restraint holds. I trust the staff, but it’s hard to hear. None of the kids has complained about being here; in fact, several have told me how much happier they are than they were in traditional schools. We’ve got kids here eating their bodies and teenagers who shit themselves when they want to assert control. Teaching here is challenging and gratifying, and sometimes it’s a lot of fun.

Counting the ringmaster, we have nineteen acts in this show, and I’m coaching seven of them. In our rolling globe act, we teach kids to walk, jump rope, juggle, and do partner acrobatics while balanced on large balls. I should have taken a photo of my legs to illustrate this story. I would add a legend to show which bruises and scrapes come from which acts. The darkest contusions are on the inside of my knees from kids slamming the 40-pound wood and fiberglass balls into my knees as they attempt to mount the globes and I attempt to keep them from falling off. One of the biggest kids occasionally freaks out in terror and sometimes closes his eyes, entirely preventing him from being able to balance. He appears heavily medicated, and I wonder whether he feels drugged and unsteady. The two littlest kids in the act are hyperactive in opposite ways: in the final trick of the act, when they sit on bigger boys shoulders while those boys stand on the globes, one of the little ones panics and screams while the other pays so little attention that he once started singing Entrance of the Gladiators, ignoring our pleas for him to focus long enough for us to get him down safely.

I was dreading coaching bike, but it came with two surprise bonuses, so I’ve really enjoyed it. We’re short staffed here, with nine people teaching a cast of over 100 kids. Because we’re so short handed, Bruce, the owner of the company is directing this act, and we hired the school’s gym teacher to ride the bike. As it turns out, I’m loving working with them both. Bruce, who has been doing this forever, is fantastic with the kids (and can perform any act in the show on a moment’s notice), and the young Croatian gym teacher is, well, hot. Bonus!

In the act, the kids run onto the moving bike and then climb into various acrobatic positions, including inverting into headstands on the rider’s shoulders or lying across the bike and pedaling it with their hands. When a kid is absent, confused, or insistent that something is impossible, Bruce has me do the tricks, so I get to climb all over the hot Croatian. On my leg-bruise illustration, bike is responsible for the tire burns across my right calf. A few of the kids also sport tire burns, and several have thumb prints on their arms from me grabbing them as they fall. Once we get the trick stable enough with the bike stationary, we do it in motion. I run around the ring trying to hold up to four wriggling kids on the bike or catch them when they fall. Adding to the challenge, several of the kids weigh more than I do, and some of them don’t smell so good.

One day Bruce gave the kids a bunch of hints and mnemonic devices to help them remember the order of the six tricks in the act. A few of the kids got it right away, but one eleven-year-old, the sweetest kid you’ll ever meet, just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t that he couldn’t remember six tricks in a row; he couldn’t remember one trick in a row. It took maybe twenty tries, with us giving him several hints before each trick name before Bruce was satisfied enough. I would have buckled. In fact, I couldn’t even watch and was giving the kid hints behind Bruce’s back, but Bruce not only didn’t give up, but he didn’t even show any frustration, and amazingly, neither did the kid. All the others had long gone, but this cherub kept trying. By the way, this kid is short, chubby, affectionate, cheerful, and super cute, but he drools. I told him to try to control it on the bike, and he said his medication makes him drool, and he can’t help it. His identical twin, who is in my clown troupe, is even chubbier, and hugs me every time he sees me. He doesn’t drool as much.

For homework, Bruce asked all the bike kids to write down the list, and the drooly kid said he couldn’t write. I suggested it would be okay if he told the list to a friend or dorm staff person, and they could write it down for him. Later the kid told me he couldn’t read either. The weekend after this happened, I went to visit my sister, and as a control test, I taught her eleven-year-old daughter the act order. I said it once, with mnemonics, and she repeated the whole list back to me correctly. The next morning, unprompted, she announced that she still remembered most of it, and then proved it.

This company doesn’t usually do clown acts and certainly not at this school, where the kids are so difficult, but for some reason I volunteered to create a clown act. I cast six boys, ranging from eight to sixteen years old, and several of them immediately threatened to drop out because they weren’t in something cool, like fire eating. I think I won them over though, because even the toughest, football playing, Timberland-wearing fourteen-year-old stuck with it.

When we started rehearsals, I was planning to teach them a classic clown entree called “Music Box,” but it required some props I didn’t have, and I wanted to watch a video of it to remind myself how it went. I couldn’t find any video, and several of the kids were misbehaving so much in school that the kept missing rehearsals because they were “in transition,” which turned out not to mean that they were on their way but rather that they were in so much trouble that they lost all privileges and had to stay in a “quiet room” until they could pull themselves together. In the meantime, I had the remaining kids twice a day and wasn’t ready to start working on the act, so I made up a bunch of clown exercises and taught them pieces of other clown routines, partly to convince them that clowning was a skill to be practiced, partly to build rapport in the mismatched group, and partly to stall until I could find Music Box online to make sure I remembered how it went. Only as usual, nothing goes as I plan.

By the time I gave up on finding Music Box online, I’d taught all six kids two other full clown routines, one with two kids fighting over a chair and an abridged version of another classic clown entree called “Dead and Alive.” I was only supposed to coach one clown act with all six kids in it, but now I had two different two-person acts, which would leave two kids with nothing to do. So I made up a six-person version of Music Box (of course using Gangnam Style!), and cast the three acts to feature a different pair of kids in each one. So now I’m directing three acts instead of one, stupidly tripling my work load.

The clown acts are the only ones that don’t hurt me physically, but they’re the most mentally exhausting, partly because I’m in charge, and mostly because one of the kids is completely out of control and stirs up the others, who are already on the fence. Several of them have missed multiple rehearsals because they were in transition. This kid’s behavior is so disruptive that several teachers suggested I throw him out of the show, but I’ve gotten attached to him. Plus, he’s curiously talented, and I get the feeling he doesn’t get to shine that often in other areas of life. He’s a pudgy eleven-year-old with food all over his face, and he’s a full-time resident here, as are about half the kids in the program. He still misses his mother so much he cries in panic whenever he thinks he won’t be able to talk to her. He drives me nuts, but I adore him.

The kids here range in size from about 70-pound six-year-olds to 350-pound teenagers. Our ringmaster is a 16-year-old with a full beard and a triple X shirt size. He sweats so much the costume director is worried he’ll ruin the shirt, and the sound engineer can’t keep his microphone taped to his face. (Fine, the costume director and sound engineer are the same person. She also directs several acts, does the hiring, and coordinates our meals. I told you we were short staffed.)

Some of the biggest kids look normal and tough until they open their mouths and show the mental capacity and personality of much younger children.  A 14-year-old bike kid walked up to me and, instead of saying hello, held up both hands and announced proudly that he’d had his fingernails trimmed. Every day he tells me how hard it is to do the bike tricks and then asks me whether he “did good” that day. Unfortunately he has no body control, and can’t remember the simplest tricks. Of course I always say he did well, as he’s clearly trying his best. He also stinks. We’ve asked him to bathe and brush his teeth at least daily, but so far he still smells. Another kid in the act is also a smelly sweety. Every time he goes upside down, he farts. When he’s right-side-up though, he’s adorable, and often offers me hugs.

We have some of the littlest kids in skate, including one girl so cheerful and sweet we’re all wondering what she’s doing here. One of the other coaches actually asked her whether she ever got upset, and she said she did the day she first came here last year but hadn’t since then. Another of the kids in that act is also fantastic, and we wonder what they’re doing at this school. Of the remaining four kids cast in the act, one has wet his pants twice in rehearsal, one was ejected for misbehavior, and two shut down occasionally into complete floppy non-compliance. Compliance isn’t the right word, but I don’t know what to call it. They just zone out completely in the middle of whatever you’re doing. They’re both very sweet the rest of the time, but one just seems to get overwhelmed easily and the other gets angry and upset, and then they collapse, literally flopping on the floor unresponsive.

In this act, we the adults skate in circles while pulling the kids around us. For us it’s like lifting weights while doing a cardio workout. Even some strong coaches haven’t been able to work through the dizziness. When we get fast enough, we lift into the air, where we pull them into positions with names like airplane, ungoddess, and double-toe. It’s exhausting. When I first learned to do it, over a decade ago, I fell constantly. Once I fell in a show and broke my knee. I didn’t realize it was any worse than any of the other falls I’d taken, so I skated four tricks on a broken knee and finished the rest of my acts. That night I elevated the knee, iced it, and drank vodka until I could passed out. When it still hurt in the morning, I went to the ER and got a walking cast and crutches. I quit drinking in 2004 though, so I better not break anything now.

After a while, you still drop the kids, but you fall less often. The tricks are easier (but still hard) when the kids are coordinated, and these kids are not, but I’m mostly keeping myself and the kids from falling. The two biggest problems the kids have is not staying rigid enough (so that we can get them up to speed) and not kicking high enough (so that we can grab their ankles). On the leg map, my skate wounds extend up my right shin where the kids kick me with the heavy wheels. They’re supposed to kick up to my hip, but the skates are heavy, and the kids are short.

If the school hasn’t paid for us to set up a flying rig, we usually close the show with a double trapeze act, with one kid and one adult. None of the other coaches wanted to perform it though because the kids here are so uncoordinated and basing double trap hurts even under the best conditions. I tried it once over a decade ago, and it didn’t go so hot, but I asked to be given a chance. The risk was that I wouldn’t be ready by showtime, which would strand the kid without an act, but one of the aerial coaches had done it in the past, and we knew we could force him to step in on show day if necessary, so Bruce agreed to let me try.

Most people nowadays do this act from a catcher’s lock or a Washington trapeze, either way giving you something to lock your feet onto, making the act safer and keeping the pressure off the backs of the knees. Bruce doesn’t like the way that looks or maybe thinks it’s cheating, so I do it the old-fashioned way by pointing my toes super hard and hanging from my knees the whole time with no lock. On the leg map, double trapeze wounds are the red, raw backs of my knees, but the double trap wounds extend beyond the legs. I foolishly tried to do a spin trick while the kid was wearing safety lines, and I got a nasty rope burn down the side of my face and neck. That happened about a week ago, and every day kids are still gasping and asking what happened to my face. Also, I fell off the trapeze once in practice and landed on my face, wrenching my neck (the spotter grabbed the kid, so he was fine). That was more embarrassing than painful. Between the kid’s limitations and mine, we cut the act down to just a few tricks, but yesterday we ran it through twice without safety lines, and everyone said it looked great.

The double trap kid is eleven years old and has been living here since he was six. He is smart and chatty and fearless, but he can’t focus at all, which is alarming when he’s hanging twelve feet in the air by one foot and still trying to tell us jokes. Sometimes we can’t tell whether he understands what we’re saying. In the act’s final trick, log spin, the kid climbs down my body from the trapeze to my feet, cracking joints I never knew I had. Then he lies on my feet, and I let go with my hands and spin both of us from just my neck. It hurts like crazy, and makes me so dizzy I have a hard time finding the bar again to grab on. Actually, the whole act hurts. When I practice I wear three pairs of tights to protect the back of my knees. My hands are calloused, and my shoulders are so tight that I can’t scratch my own back.

Somehow I’ve gotten through the fear and pain, but as we approach the show, I have a new problem: the costume. I realized today that for two weeks, and this might be the first two weeks of my life that I’ve been able to say this, I’ve only thought of my body functionally—I haven’t worried about how it looks. When I eat, I think about whether the food will give me enough energy to get through running around after the bike or will make me sick at skate. All that changed when I saw the unitard I’d be performing in. I felt like a Teletubbie (or maybe a Telechubbie) in it, but lots of the kids are self-conscious about their costumes because they’re all used to wearing baggy jeans instead of clingy show tights, and I didn’t want to set a bad example by complaining. As we say in circus, I smile and style.

Unfortunately, those are the only photos I have, so mortifying as they are, here we are:

Standout on double trapeze

The trick above is called standout. I push my hips forward and my neck back so the kid can arch up and style to the crowd. The trick below is called toehang, which is pretty self explanatory.

Toehang from double trapeze

Here’s the only other picture I’ve taken. This kid decided he needed some time by himself and made himself a private place to get it. We now refer to him as “Mat.”


Besides teaching, spotting, and performing, we all help out roustabouting, running cameras, making and selling concessions, rigging, and doing all the other work that goes into the show. I’m setting web, which I’m not very good at, and yesterday I made up clown and Spiderman make-up designs using brushes borrowed from an art therapy room. My official job is AV coordinator, but I don’t understand all the equipment yet. I spend a lot of time charging batteries and taping cords to the floor. We do a four-camera shoot on the show, with many of us running from performing to spotting to manning cameras at different points in the performance.

Most days I’m so tired I can’t do anything else, but the other night I finally forced myself to stay in the gym and practice juggling for a few hours, and that felt good/bad the way juggling after a week off often does. I taught a bunch of the cool circus guys some passing patterns, and that part only felt good.

I was a little nervous leaving the city and giving up some big work there, but I feel better than I have in ages. This is good for me, and I’m good for these kids. I wanted a job where I’d work so hard I wouldn’t have time to think, so at the end of the day I’d drop into bed exhausted. I got it.

Monday we have two shows. Tuesday we leave for Oklahoma.

3 Comments on “Back on the Bar”

  1. Shana

    Awesome write-up, Viveca. Thanks for all the details. What an intense experience you’re having, and your way of describing it is matter-of-fact, honest, and entertaining.
    I want to share this with everyone I know doing or considering Social Circus projects – this is the good, the bad, and the ugly of it. 🙂
    Best wishes to you.

  2. Adam G

    Great writeup Viveca. I’d like to post it or just a link to it on clownlink. Is that okay?

    Nice seeing you the other day at Avner’s show….

    • Viveca

      Thanks for the nice comments, and feel free to share. We’re actually looking for someone to join the tour in Michigan…

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