Even with just 10 campers contained within the reverberating gym, it was organized chaos at the Little Apple Circus Camp Wednesday afternoon.
The kids — ranging from just 5 years old to 14 — had free reign to try any of the circus activities scattered around the gym, including clowning, juggling, tumbling, plate spinning and stilt-walking. The kids also tried their hands at the lyra hoops and dangled, hung and twirled from the silks — strands of colorful fabric hanging from about 30 feet in the air.
They weren’t yet masters at any of the activities — they’re kids, after all — but their progression in just three days of training since the camp started Monday was plainly visible, and with their big, culminating circus performance Friday afternoon, the kids were training and eager to show off their skills.
And while the kids may not have been masters, they were learning from some veterans of the craft. Ray and Erin Grins, two husband-and-wife juggling masters from the East Coast who have performed around the world and taught circus camps for years, were finally persuaded to come to the Little Apple and co-found a camp with longtime friends Heidi and Damian Hilton, a local husband-and-wife duo with years of experience in dance and aerial skills.
Heidi is the director of Bates Dance Studios and the advanced silks trainer for Little Apple Aerials, where she works alongside Damian, who previously coached the K-State cheer squad.
“Most of the kids were brand new to this, they might’ve had some basic experience, but now they’re doing some pretty cool tricks,” Heidi said. “It’s arts, it’s athletics, it’s using your brain and getting out of your comfort zone in a safe environment. It’s an opportunity we haven’t had in Manhattan yet. With all the skills they learn, they also get to do a show for their parents and the community.”
The camp is an experiment of sorts for the area. Among sports camps and science camps and regular day camps, there really hasn’t been a camp dedicated to circus activities and performances. It has its genesis several years ago, when Heidi and Erin worked together performing at an amusement park. After several years of talking about starting a circus camp, the couples finally went for it this year.
“It really gives the kids confidence, because they’re doing something so unique,” Erin said. “There’s something for everyone, so they might not have to be the best jugglers in the world, and that’s OK, because they can try something else like spinning plates.”
The Hiltons teach campers more of the aerial skills, while the Grins show them the skills they’ve picked up after decades working in circuses.
Compared to participating in team sports, circus campers work on skills more individually, Erin said, but they still work together to encourage each other to learn from their mistakes and pick up the pieces from failures — sometimes literally after a failed juggle.
Nolan and Jonah O’Donnell, two brothers who are soon-to-be 5th- and 4th-graders respectively at Amanda Arnold Elementary School, said they weren’t sure what to expect going into the circus camp at the beginning of the week, but midway through the camp, they thought it was the most fun camp they had ever attended.
“We didn’t even know there were thing like acrobatics,” Jonah said. “We didn’t know about the different kinds of trapeze.”
The couples hope to continue the camp next year, with even more campers and maybe even more activities. Damian said the camp gives kids an early interest in some of these unique skills.
“A lot of these kids wouldn’t pick these activities up if they didn’t have a solid understanding of how to go from point A to point B with these things,” Damian said. “These kids, they’re doing amazing things. They learn to fall down but to get back up immediately. As a coach, that’s the coolest thing in the world.”