Name of organization: Circus Juventas
City & Country: St. Paul, MN, USA
Founder(s): Dan & Betty Butler
Year founded: 1994
This is the inaugural post of the DIY Circus Lab Spotlight! I'm thrilled to welcome Betty Butler, the co-founder of Circus Juventas in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.
Get Informed about youth circus, Get Inspired by circus arts education, and Get Started in your own circus practice!
Jackie Leigh Davis: How old were you when you started learning circus?
Betty Butler: We moved to Sarasota, Florida in 1970, when I was 13 years old and in the 7th grade. My new home was also the home to Ringling Brothers and every circus family you could think of.
JLD: How did you get started learning circus? What was the skill that first drew you in?
BB: My father had an unrelenting mission for me to try every activity on earth, with various trials in gymnastics, ballet, bowling, ice skating, track & field, theatre and football. One day, when I was 14, he drove me to the Sailor Circus big top, and off I went to give circus a try. Unbeknownst to both of us, it would be love at first sight, and I’d never look back at another activity. I first took to multiple trapeze and unicycle, and within a few years, webs, cloud swings, tumbling, teeterboard, revolving ladders and the ultimate act - the high wire, which became my greatest passion.
JLD: Tell us how you founded Circus Juventas.
BB: Fast forward to 18 years after graduation from the Sailor Circus program and Florida State University: After marriage to my high school sweetheart (who was also my partner at Sailor Circus), a cross-country move to Minnesota and three kids, we were attending a Sailor Circus five-year “has been” reunion. My husband and I were 36, and still pretty agile and performing all of our acts. When we returned to Minnesota from the reunion, we were feeling profoundly nostalgic for our circus roots. There was a sense of sadness and a void that we didn’t know how to fill – unless we could surround ourselves with our circus community and passion for the art of circus again.
That presented a big problem as we were living 1200 miles away from the heart of what we loved the most. It dawned on us that the Twin Cities—nor any Midwestern community for that matter—had anything like a youth circus performing arts program like we had trained in Sarasota.. It was as an epiphanic moment, thrilling yet filled with the obvious question – how do you build a circus school from scratch?
We started humbly, with an unexpected green light from our city’s Parks and Rec department to allow us to install handmade equipment into a new $4 million rec center in our neighborhood. And so, our little grass roots circus program was launched in 1994. Fortuitous and serendipitous are two words that come to mind!
JLD: What are the top 3 things we should know about Circus Juventas?
BB: 1) We are a non-profit, volunteer-fueled organization. When people experience the incredible artistry of our students and the high production values of our performances, there’s an assumption that we’re a highly funded, for-profit enterprise. It says a lot about how hard everyone under our Big Top works - and about how much the of our students and coaches can shine.
2) The benefits of circus go beyond what meets the eye. We serve 1000 students under our big top through circus arts classes—but what we teach is not limited to a particular act or genre. Yes, our students learn artistry, athleticism and performance—but our kids also are getting lessons in goal-making, resiliency, failure, success, teamwork and personal achievement.
3) Our objective is to be a social catalyst. In our opinion, all circus is inherently ‘social’ in that by the definition of “social circus”, we are all a medium for social justice and good. 33% of our students have emotional and/or physical issues that are addressed in our curriculum; 50% of our student base has financial and special need requirements. We address financial needs through scholarships and work study opportunities; special needs range from emotional, physical and social challenges, and are addressed through collaborations with organizations such as The Neighborhood House, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and the Mayo Clinic, as well as crafted programs such as our WINGS and Out of the Chair offerings.
JLD: What would you tell someone who is unsure about trying circus?
BB: There truly is something for everyone in the circus. Whether you are born with two left feet or are an extraordinary athlete, whether you have a fear of heights or dreamed of swinging on the flying trapeze, whether you’re shy or want to wear a red nose in front of thousands—we’ve got an act for you. You are not going to get sidelined here.
JLD: What would you tell someone who is good at sports, gymnastics, or dance and thinks they don't need, or don't have time for, circus?
BB: Well, we all are very aware of the extraordinary athletes who audition for Cirque du Soleil, for example – to reach the pinnacle level of professional training and a career – these are the skills that are often sought after and utilized in professional circus life. But even if that is not a goal – circus arts training can complement, support, and strengthen any athletic sport an individual is involved in. We have many students who stay in their school sports and generally find circus to give them an advantage over their peers. And you get the added bonus of creativity and individual expression that one would not receive in these kinds of activities.
JLD: When newcomers walk into your program for the very first time, what can they expect?
BB: We offer Experience classes which give elementary-aged students a broad view of their different options in one class, or work with kids and parents to select a particular act/genre to try. There is no right or wrong path, so we encourage kids to explore, watch all the acts in our shows and then choosing their own personalized path forward.
JLD: Please share any final thoughts or advice for kids, parents, teachers, or anyone who’s new to trying circus.
BB: Consider that there are beneficial mental and physical challenges that come with “running away with the circus.” It’s truly unlike anything you’ll ever try, and you never know—we may see you someday in the ring, passing on a love of performing, mentoring/teaching, backstage help, or administering a school and introducing the next generation to this thing called “circus”.
If you live in the greater St. Paul area, head over to Circus Juventas! … And if you live anywhere else on the planet and seek a youth circus program near you, find one on the Master List of Youth & Social Circus Worldwide.