Clowning around

Budding performers run off and join the circus ... literally

Juggling flaming torches, walking on stilts and clowning around do not sound like typical afterschool activities for elementary school-aged kids. But at CircEsteem it's the usual drill.

At local schools and community centers across the city, CircEsteem serves up a healthy dose of responsibility and confidence side-by-side with plate spinning and balancing acts. And it's fun. "You don't often get to out-math your math teacher, but kids are always out-juggling their juggling teachers," says Paul Miller, founder and chief goof officer of CircEsteem.

Ali Haymes, 12, of Chicago, ran off and joined the circus (the Chicago Youth Circus, that is) five years ago after CircEsteem's afterschool program sparked her interest. Ali's mom, Leslie Winter, says CircEsteem is a "fabulous experience" for her daughter, whose list of extracurricular activities also includes dance and piano lessons. "The best thing [about CircEsteem] has been the friendships she's made with children who come from all over the city," Winter says. "It's a wonderful program that encourages children to get out of their shell, but also to learn some wonderful skills."

CircEsteem is a nonprofit organization that offers afterschool programs along with one-day workshops and Saturday classes for various skill levels. Its main objective is boosting self-esteem and communication skills, but learning standing back flips and hanging with pros from Cirque du Soleil are pretty sweet extras. (312) 593-4242,

The Actors Gymnasium in Evanston is another outlet for budding circus performers. Classes for children 2 and up teach the basics of circus arts including tumbling, juggling, stilt walking, trapeze, Spanish web and tight rope walking. Hands-on spotting with experienced instructors, a gymnastics-style floor, small classes and lots of mats ensure kids are as safe as possible. Their winter session starts Nov. 13. (847) 328-2795,

Flying Gaonas Gym focuses on teaching trapeze arts classes to students who dream of soaring through the air. Beginners start with the basics: safety, knee hangs from the trapeze bar and falling safely onto the mats. More advanced students graduate to layouts, splits, shoots and pull overs. Classes are held Wednesday through Sunday and curious kids can try out one swing anytime for $10. (773) 398-9881,

Katie Holland


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