Cincinnati Family Magazine

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April 24, 2024

Don’t Call it Clowning Around

Greater Cincinnati’s circus arts programs are fun, yes, but the real take-away lies in the dramatic changes in your children.

March is an exciting time for circus fans, with Cirque du Soleil and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus coming to town.  So there’s no better time to turn the spotlight on our own circus arts programs, where families can be amazed all year long!

For the Adventurous Soul:
Cincinnati Circus Company

On a Saturday night at the Western Sports Mall, 6-year-old Greta (who’s nearly 7, thank you very much) climbed a long ladder in order to launch herself into the air by way of Flying Trapeze.
As instructors from the Cincinnati Circus Company (513-400-EVNT or 3868; provided directions, the crowd on the ground buzzed with anticipation — would she be too scared? Her mom, Margaret Minzer, said she brought Greta to try “flying” after seeing the trapeze in action at Newport on the Levee. But Greta didn’t hesitate and as she soared across the gymnasium, the observers sent up a cheer.

Back on the ground, Greta admitted she was a little nervous at first. “But then, I felt like I was flying!”

That’s the kind of spirit Dave Willacker, owner of Cincinnati Circus Company, likes to see. “I think the secret to our success is that we’re friendly!” he says. He explains that performers for the company don’t “hide” behind make-up and outlandish costumes. The key ingredient lies in the up-close-and-personal interaction with the audience. “We tell the audience who we are, we make it accessible,” he says.

It’s a simple philosophy, but it works. Whether entertaining at carnivals and parties or performing at Superbowl XLVI in Indianapolis, their trademark red and white striped uniforms are a familiar sight across the Midwest. Since beginning in 2003 with juggling acts, the Cincinnati Circus Company has grown each year to add new elements like stilt walking and fire eating, more performers, and more opportunities for families. This year, the company will host a summer camp for ages 8 and older at Newport on the Levee, and Willacker has plans for an after-school tutoring program that includes circus work. Classes in aerial and hoop fitness — along with trapeze lessons — are gaining in popularity.  And the entire family can take Circus Classes — in which parents learn to juggle and walk a tight rope alongside their little ones. But while having fun is the rule of the day, don’t expect to “clown around.”

“There is an art form of classical clowning,” says Willacker, adding that the traditional role of the clown has great value in circus history. “But clowns get laughs at their own expense. They’re the opposite of what circus performers are, which are superstars. We don’t want to teach children to be fools. We want to teach them to be stars.” And with Greta climbing the ladder for a second “flight,” Willacker and the Cincinnati Circus Company might just have a little star in the making.

A Clown With a Cause:
Circus Mojo

Paul Miller admits to causing a few traffic jams in Ludlow, KY. Then again, it would be hard not to stop and stare when a gang of kids is engaged in a pie fight in the parking lot of Circus Mojo (800-381-TADA or After opening in the Old Ludlow Movie Theatre in November 2009, Miller — Creator and Motivational Clown — has big plans, including an expansion of the theatre into a performance space that will host multiple shows each week (and help raise money for local charities by splitting ticket sales). And while you can hire Circus Mojo for entertainment purposes, or enjoy Circus Silly Willy, a program for families with children ages 2 – 6, Miller’s real goals are about changing lives.

“Birthday parties are fun,” he says, “but I use circus to develop talent and community support.”  Decisions at Circus Mojo are intentional. Summer camps and classes for ages 7 to 17 are also about teaching life skills. Combining younger students with older ones serves practical needs, like having bigger kids lift smaller kids during partner acrobatics, but it also gives those older kids a chance to develop leadership qualities. Kids also learn about consequences. Circus work can be dangerous, Miller explains, and kids learn that they need to follow the rules in order to stay safe. Each camp or class session ends with a show, and Miller expects each child to show off a newly acquired skill. “Everyone learns and achieves,” he says.  “It’s such a foreign concept, to have expectations and consequences.” Although some may be frustrated when attempting a new skill, in the end, the reward lies in the feeling of achievement after finally spinning a plate or walking a tightrope. After all, as Miller says, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be called a “trick.”

A source of pride for Miller is Mojo Medicine — an enrichment program that helps the ill become active participants. “It’s the most rewarding, the most fascinating,” he says. Miller’s work at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) draws inspiration from the Dream Doctors Project — a team of Israeli “medical clowns” who are part of a child’s medical team with outstanding results (see Families who spend any time at CCHMC may see Miller and friends roaming the halls and entertaining children, parents and hospital staff. But kids will get more than entertainment. As they learn to balance a peacock feather or spin a plate, or even outdo their parents and the hospital staff, they also get proof that they, quite simply, can.

Where Kids and Theatre Go Hand in Hand:
My Nose Turns Red

At the Emanuel Community Center, a group of kids ranging in age from 8 to 17 gather each Saturday morning to hone their circus skills under the direction of My Nose Turns Red’s (MNTR) founder, Steve Roenker (859-581-7100 or As members of MNTR’s advanced class, these blossoming performers whiz around the room on unicycles, skip along the tight ropes and practice with hoops and flags — and class hasn’t even begun!
“Circus is such a great blend of physical fitness and accomplishment,” says Roenker, adding that aside from getting a little “adventure therapy,” kids also develop teamwork and performance skills and self-esteem.

The non-profit organization receives support from the Kentucky Arts Council and ArtsWave, as well as the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.  Focusing mainly on youth, MNTR aims to teach the traditional art of the theatrical clown, while giving kids the opportunity to succeed, whether they are walking on globes, juggling or performing in front of a crowd — a skill that Roenker says is disappearing.

MNTR is also far-reaching — aside from classes at the Emanuel Community Center, Roenker teaches at the New School, Cincinnati Children’s Home, Cincinnati Waldorf School, the Blue Ash Recreation Center, and he hosts a summer camp. MNTR also received a grant for Circus Youth in Action: a program that includes after-school tutoring followed by circus class. Roenker spends one day a week with middle school students, then takes those students with him to help with elementary-aged students, giving those older children an opportunity to develop leadership skills.

The Youth Circus classes culminate in a Spring Extravaganza, taking place this year on April 28 and 29 in the Jarson Kaplan Theatre of the Aronoff Center for the Arts. After selling out the theatre last spring, My Nose Turns Red will offer two shows this year — a fantastic opportunity for kids to perform in front of a large crowd (the Jarson Kaplan theatre seats 437!), a valuable skill that will serve them well in the future, regardless of their path.

With future plans to offer even more classes, including some for adults, Roenker says that the best part of My Nose Turns Red remains in the opportunity to watch kids grow — “not just in size,” he says, “but in their maturity, their leadership qualities and as human beings.”

Sherry Hang is editor for this publication.

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