Running Home to the Circus

By Sonya Gurwitt

It was raining as my brother Sam and I got out of the car in front of the old barn in Greensboro, VT. We carried our suitcases down the hill to the run-down trailers in which we would be sleeping for the next three weeks. Wet and cold but too excited to care, we had arrived at Circus Smirkus to begin our summer.

We had only three demanding weeks to put together a two-hour show, and before we knew it, opening day was upon us. Suddenly, we had to perform in front of 750 people. Somehow, miraculously, we managed to get through our first two performances in Greensboro, then headed out for a seven-week tour that would take us—along with our 27 fellow performers, aged 10 to 18—to 15 towns around New England and New York. We would perform 67 shows straight for over 40,000 people.

Life on the road was grueling. We performed two shows a day for at least two days in a row at each site, training between and even during the shows. At night we stayed with families who had agreed to take a few of us into their homes, where we made sure to be polite and talkative no matter how tired we were. Then we’d get a day off to travel to the next site. The schedule was exhausting at times, both physically and emotionally, but there was never a moment when it wasn’t worth it.

There were two things I loved most about the summer. One was performing. During the course of the summer, we did the same show so many times that it felt like a real person, a close friend. It was a friend that changed over time, that had its good days and its bad ones, and that welcomed me warmly each time I entered the tent.

Though after a certain point I was no longer nervous before every show, the energy in the tent was palpable as soon as I stepped inside. No matter how hot it was outside, it was warmer in the tent, and I could hear the expectant buzz of the audience waiting for the show to start. Sometimes I stood watching the crowd. They gazed around the tent, taking it all in, from the little kids sitting packed tightly against the ring curb, to the bright stars on the tent ceiling and the mass of ropes and other complicated rigging, to the bandstand above the stage where the musicians sat with their keyboards and drum set. The energy would build, creating a subtle buzz in the air that I could feel in my fingers and toes. Then, just as the energy was about to brim over, the music would start.

I was in several acts, but my main act was the lyra, a metal hoop that hung high in the air. I did tricks on it while it spun very fast or swung back and forth across the stage. I loved doing the act, and though it terrified me at first, spinning twenty feet up was freeing, the closest to flying a human can get without wings. I loved watching the spellbound faces of the audience as they stared up, and then the eruption of applause, like a dam bursting, as my co-performers and I landed on the ground once again to take our bows.

At the end of each show, all the performers would stand around the ring, smile at the audience, and clap along with them as they cheered for us. There was something magical about looking out at hundreds of smiling faces and knowing that we were the cause of that happiness. After the show was over, star-struck kids would step into the ring, and we would give high fives, autograph programs, and pose in pictures alongside them. These interactions were almost as special as the show itself; I will never forget the little girl who gave me a picture she had painted, or the one who shyly sought me out to tell me that my act was her favorite.

The other thing I loved about the summer was the people I spent it with. We had worked together to create a show and perform it over and over again, carrying water to each other in the blistering heat, giving each other piggybacks through the mud, and shielding each other from hail as it rained down on us during a performance. Together, we lay out on rooftops and watched shooting stars, flash mobbed multiple Dunkin Donuts, jumped off cliffs and waded through waterfalls, sang Lady Gaga at the top of our lungs, watched sunrises and sunsets, and went on midnight walks through the woods. For one unforgettable summer, they were my family, and Smirkus was my home.

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