By Kayla Collier
Under a big-top tent, children ages 5 to 18 gather for a high-flying summer adventure where the sky’s the limit in the backwoods of Vermont.
For at least a short while, they belong to the magical world that is the circus.
The term itself summons images of elephants, clowns and lion-taming ringleaders coupled with the buttery scent of freshly popped popcorn. But tucked away on a field in Greensboro, a town of only 762 people, the late 1980s brought Circus Smirkus to Vermont — an enterprise that left the animals in their natural habitats, and focused on human skills and artistry.
Today, bright lights and colors still fill the air with a sense of wonder day in and day out, a sense of enchantment that can last a day or a lifetime.
With clowning and acrobatics, juggling and the flying trapeze, kids describe Circus Smirkus summer camp as a life-changing experience, says Josh Shack, camp operations director.
“For people who might be a little different, Smirkus is an inclusive and diverse place,” Shack said.
Historically, the circus has been a place where anyone is welcome to participate in the hybrid of art and sport that requires varied skills and abilities to form a whole.
Where else would parents let their kids literally swing from the rafters and bounce off the walls?
Many troupers with the Big Top Tour began their training as campers before taking their show on the road for a two-month performance tour of New England, immersing themselves in circus life.
Starting in June, during a one-day camp, youngsters ages 5 to 11 hang upside down from the trapeze, balance spinning plates and walk on a giant globe, testing the waters of circus training with an introduction to these unusual skills.
For those ready for an overnight adventure, kids 6 to 11 can spend two days and one night clowning around under the circus tent with professional coaches in Smirkling Camp, combining their new abilities with the excitement of sleeping away from home — without having to run away to do it.
The weeklong sessions for older circus enthusiasts ages 8 to 16 go even further, offering everything from aerials and acrobatics to juggling, walking the tight wire, and stilt walking.
At evening talent shows, kids get a chance to showcase their skills in front of other campers, tuning up for an end-of-session show for family and friends.
For more serious and advanced circus performers, two-week sessions allow youngsters to push their skills further with an extensive circus arts adventure that adds unicycling, hand-balancing and gymnastics. The two-week sessions end in a show in front of a live audience.
The camps offer an athletic but noncompetitive art form in which kids can express themselves.
“The last day is pie day, where kids have a cream pie fight with the counselors and trainers. Throughout the session, we also sing camp songs and have a lot of traditional, quirky, inclusive culture,” Shack said.
One tradition is lying under the stars for an open-ended conclusion to the day. Campers and counselors can take the opportunity to practice the tricks they worked on that day, or simply reflect and connect.
Circus Smirkus is the only circus-exclusive residential camp in the United States, and the only camp with real circus tents.
Each camp session can take 70 to 84 participants, and at this point, enrollment is already 70 percent full, but most sessions still have a few slots open.
For more information, visit wmirkus.org or call Shack at 533-7443. Partial scholarships are also available to families with low incomes or other financial circumstances.