The audience wasn't large, just a handful of officials and news media members. But the gasps were audible as Circus Juventas aerialist Emily Hovan repeatedly scaled the thick rope dangling from the center of the Big Top, wrapped it around her torso and legs, then spiraled down, twisting and twirling, toward the mat on the arena floor.

Come July 4, the plan is for Hovan and 29 other Circus Juventas performers to elicit oohs and ahhs from audiences numbering in the thousands as part of Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. There, circus co-founders Daniel W. Butler, who is executive director, and Elizabeth "Betty" Butler, who is artistic director, will be honored among the world's circus greats, such as the tightrope-walking Wallendas with whom the Butlers once trained.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival selected Circus Juventas to be featured during its 50th Anniversary celebration to be held on the National Mall June 29 through July 9.

"Circus Juventas is one of the most prominent community-based youth circus organizations in the United States today and is widely recognized for its creativity and excellence in advancing circus nouveau training," said Sabrina Lynn Motley, director of the Folklife festival. "From its hub in the Twin Cities, they have become a national model of ongoing and evolving efforts to unite community life through values that lie at the very heart of circus arts — cooperation, trust and mutual respect."

Circus arts — and Circus Juventas, Motley said — are examples of a truly American art form.

Throughout our history, from small towns to big cities, she said, "People walked away feeling [the circus] was theirs."

Circus Juventas will be among 15 to 20 organizations, comprising 300 young people, to perform on the mall, Motley said.

The challenge now, for the Butlers and the 30 performers, four coaches and two equipment riggers who hope to make the trip this summer, is to raise the $75,000 it will cost to go. That effort begins Saturday, said Daniel Butler, with an open house and tours starting at 4 p.m. The plan is to hold regular "Sing for Your Supper" events at the Highland Park circus school in April, May and June.

"We really need the community to come together and support us," he said.

The Butlers met as teenagers at the Sailor Circus in Sarasota, Fla., and started Circus Juventas as an after-school program in Highland Park 23 years ago. Since that time, Daniel Butler estimates the school has taught at least 10,000 young people in the arts of juggling, tumbling, trapeze and tightrope. He estimated that 100 alumni have gone on to perform professionally around the world.

When the Butlers started Circus Juventas, he said, there were perhaps six youth circus schools in the United States. Now, there are at least 150, with most opening in the past 10 years.

Friday, Butler got a bit choked up as he talked about what the Smithsonian's recognition of Circus Juventas means after a career helping young people find the strength, passion and courage to perform.

"We have worked so hard for our young people and never really paid attention to where we were [compared to other circuses]," he said. "This was such a wonderful surprise."