Great news for Twin Cities parents: Your kids no longer have to run away to join the circus, because they can join one much closer to home -- Circus Juventas.

For 17 years, the St. Paul-based school has been teaching everything from tightrope walking to tumbling. For the annual gala at Circus Juventas' own Big Top in St. Paul, students performed acts from their popular fairytale-based show "Grimm: Happily Ever After."

Founders Betty and Dan Butler met in a youth circus in Florida as teenagers and fell in love "under the Big Top," Betty said. They dated through high school and married in 1980. Since neither was from a circus family, they followed more traditional career paths. In 1994, they returned to the site of their young romance to be part of a "has-beens show."

"We got back into shape and just had so much fun, not just from going back to support the circus, but remembering what it meant to us as kids," Dan said.

So they decided to bring a slice of circus life back to Minnesota. From 30 students and a few classes a week, the school grew to 100 students in the first year. They opened the permanent Big Top in St. Paul in 2001.

Now the school offers everything from trapeze to trampoline to juggling for students as old as 21.

"It's a unique way to combine arts and athletics," Betty said.

"At Circus Juventas, there are 25 different disciplines; we have something for everybody," Dan said, adding that it really boils down to building self-esteem for kids in a noncompetitive environment.

That certainly seemed to be the case with the gravity-defying performers.

"I feel more comfortable in the air than on the ground," Nikita Salovich said. "It's expressive."

No wonder so many ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages are eager to step right up and watch them.

Sara Glassman • 612-673-7177