Juggling activities a daring feat for children-only Sailor Circus

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The kids were wide-eyed and rapt and hadn't moved in their seats for the longest time, which is saying something because they were ages 14, 12 and 4. Their singularly focused attention was not surprising because this was the circus, designed to amuse, delight and enthrall "children of all ages," as the ringmaster declared in welcoming us to the big top.

But this circus was different. Yes, there were the three rings of nonstop action on the floor and high above, but there were no animals. The Big Apple Circus and Cirque du Soleil also do not use animals, so what made this circus distinctive?

There were no adults performing, which added to the awe of my daughter, son and niece.

Welcome to the PAL Sailor Circus, a 61-year-old institution and one of the best-kept secrets in Sarasota.

While our kids can play sports or join the debate team or band, the school kids of Sarasota have an added option of taking "circus" for an after-school activity. And from the thrilled looks on the faces of the costumed performers as they walked the high wire, swung on trapezes and rode on unicycles at high speeds with another kid on their shoulders, there wasn't any place they would rather be.

I kept leaning over to my action-oriented 12-year-old son, Luke, and saying, "Do not attempt this at home." I could see in his eyes that he was getting ideas as acrobats his age and size rode their bikes up ramps and launched passengers airborne across the ring on a seesaw.

And I wasn't sure if my 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, was more enthralled with the swinging and catching skills of the shirtless trapeze artist or his preternatural eight-pack abdomen.

Decades of instruction under the big top

I discovered the circus during the winter break while driving back to our beachfront condo on Lido Key after running an errand in downtown Sarasota, just a few minutes' drive from the Gulf of Mexico. I asked my father-in-law, who has the condo, about that large blue and white bubble structure on the outskirts of the central business district.

My first impression when he said "Sailor Circus" was a big top with Navy men and Merchant Marines on their weekends off, performing for the locals, but that couldn't be right. A little research sent me straight for tickets to the Christmas Extravaganza, one of only two runs of public performances in the big top that the circus holds each year. (The Spring Spectacular begins in late March.)

The Sailor Circus is actually named for the mascot of Sarasota High School. The football coach spotted the offspring of circus performers who were wintering there -- Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has major facilities in Sarasota -- and admired their agility and athleticism. "He wanted to be part of that, so he started working with them, and that's how they put on their first show," says Joan Leonard, circus program coordinator.

That was in 1949. From then until 2005, it was a part of the curriculum of the public school system, but budget cuts put it in jeopardy. That's when the Police Athletic League, whose mandate is also to keep kids off the streets, "came to our rescue," Leonard says. Now the nonprofit is looking to complete funding of a $6 million capital campaign to remodel the arena with a permanent structure, basically replacing the canvas big top with a solid one.

After school and beyond

One hopes that such an improvement doesn't disrupt the antique charm of attending the circus. When you step through the gate, you encounter calliope melodies, blinking concessions stands and diminutive performers in costume welcoming the crowd. There's a museum of sorts consisting of a couple of decorated double-wides that have framed press clippings and vintage circus costumes and props; a visit takes just a few minutes before you head to your bleacher seat with your cotton candy.

The 21/2-hour show runs on the same template as any professional circus, with parades, comedy skits, musical interludes and nonstop action in the rings. The apparent pandemonium includes juggling, stunt bicycle riding, unicycles, tightrope, trapeze and acrobats, with some acts performed simultaneously for added dazzle.

What the kids lack in polish and the occasional dropped juggling pin -- and let's be kind, they are kids -- they make up for in enthusiasm. They pay $200 a semester and can come to the tent from 3 to 8 p.m. each day for as long as they like, making it a singularly good bargain for an after-school activity.

Nearly 300 volunteers keep the place running, including some Ringling Bros. veterans who pass along their experience; others are former students between 20 and 25 who are waiting for their first post-college job.

As for injuries, "yes, they happen," Leonard says, "but from typical monkeying around. We have one girl in casts on both arms because during a school holiday" -- and not at the circus -- "she got into a race with a motorized scooter." The girl was on her unicycle and hit a curb.

Leonard says 168 students from 22 schools enrolled this year, with some beginning in fourth grade and returning through graduation. "We never turn down a child because of money," says Leonard, who adds that kids are not rejected because of skills, ability or even disabilities.

The academic success of the circus participants has led Leonard to approach Florida State University to study how circus arts -- juggling and tightrope, which require intense concentration -- have a positive effect on math and science grades. She was intrigued because 12 of last year's 13 graduating seniors went on to college and shared a 3.67 grade-point average.

"And we had five kids from Sarasota High School, four of them were in the top six in their class," Leonard says. "They're going to places like Tufts and Columbia on academic scholarships. Those are the things the audience doesn't see."