If you've ever attended a show by Circus Juventas, the after-school program that teaches young people ages 2 to 22 how to walk tightropes and fly through the air on trapeze under its Highland Park big top, you'd know how vital the relationship is between performers and audience.
So how does a circus school survive shutdowns, social distancing and crowd restrictions wrought by a global pandemic? With creativity. And the same kind of drive that makes a 15-year-old continue stepping out on tightrope after repeatedly falling.
Hoping they're finally clear of the pandemic, Betty and Dan Butler sat down with Eye On St. Paul during their just-concluded Spring Show to talk about how they kept on the lights on at the nation's largest circus school. And they shared what they offer even the kids not seeking a career under the lights.
This interview was edited for length.
Q: What's new?
Betty Butler: Everything is new. We have our Spring Show, which is new because we haven't had one, or this size of cast, in three years. It's so fun and refreshing coming off of a three-year hiatus because of COVID. It's renewing and invigorating to get everyone together and train. It's not like it never happened, but it sparks a new energy.
Q: During the pandemic, were the kids still able to come here and learn?
Dan Butler: Unfortunately, we had to close our doors the 14th of March, 2020. We thought it was going to be two weeks, it turned into four weeks, then it turned into six weeks to ... I forget how long. It's a blur. And during that time, we lost our Spring Show. But we also had registered summer camp kids that January, hopeful that we wouldn't have to return all those funds, which we definitely had to do.
Our staff worked so hard to see if the kids could perform the Spring Show, maybe we could do it after the Summer Show. Thinking that for sure we would still be open for Summer. Well, unfortunately, that didn't happen.
Q: So what did you do?
DB: During the lockdown part we created some 40 Zoom classes.
BB: We just really thought outside the box. We just thought there's a lot of fear, a lot of concern, what can we do? We offered some hybrid opportunities. And we had a very limited summer session. We gradually came back. I think we had 400 kids for fall , which was a 50% reduction, and slowly crept back. We had a holiday show planned, but had to push it to 2021 — we were able to launch that holiday show at the end of January.
DB: A lot of circus organizations shut down for two years. There was just something inside Betty and I that knew, not just for the future success of the organization but for our young people, that we couldn't do that.
So, our coaches connected with our kids at their homes [virtually]. Sometimes out on the sidewalk [in May 2020]. We kept our distance. We stayed safe. But we had to figure out a way to reinvent circus for the kids, to come out of this pandemic.
Q: When was your first full show?
BB: In January 2021, with a limited audience. Before that, our last show had been August 2019.
Q: And when did restrictions end?
BB: Just before the 2021 Summer Show.
DB: I'd like to say we survived it.
Q: What difference does having a full audience make for your young performers?
BB: It's life-changing. We were grateful to have a 25% audience because we were shut down for so long. But to have this kind of audience? It's so wonderful.
DB: We're teaching kids how to persevere, hold their head high. Even when it's not perfect, and nothing goes exactly the way they want it to.
What often happens with a bigger audience is the audience feeds on the energy of the children. Some of them are nervous and just focusing on the routine, but we talk about how the memories will last longer if they connect with the audience. If you take that moment and you look into the audience and you style and smile — you get the smiles back.
Q: How did the pandemic affect your student numbers?
DB: For the past several years, we've had usually about 1,000 kids. That's a lot for circus schools. The school at Florida State, one of the oldest, gets about 100. Now, we have about 830 kids, but that may actually be a better number for us. If we can manage our budget, that could be a better number for us.
Q: How long do your kids stay with this?
BB: We have some who started with us at 2 and are now 20, 21.
DB: I would say the average is seven years.
Q: For kids who don't go on to careers in the circus, what does Circus Juventas do for them?
BB: I think they find that they're capable of doing just about anything.
DB: They build a sense of confidence. As they're practicing and getting prepared for the show — and there's 150 kids in here practicing and with all the coaches — you learn to tune out distractions. And you accomplish things you never thought you could.
I tell the kids all the time: "What you're doing here is remarkable. You're walking on a tight rope. You're on the trapeze." We remind them, as adults and coaches, this isn't normal. This is over-the-top stuff.