Traveling Circus of the Kids allows everyone 'to be a star'

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Most children like to go to the circus -- now they can perform in one.

Circus of the Kids, the brainchild of circus performer Bruce Pfeffer, has taken its mix of learning, exercise and character-building to more than 500,000 youngsters across the U.S. The troupe has taught circus arts at schools, resorts and summer camps. Now, through Saturday, the troupe is at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill teaching juggling, clowning, trick bicycling and roller skating, trapeze, fire eating, mini-trampoline, acrobatic routines and the Spanish web -- hanging in different positions off a rope fastened to the ceiling.

Auditions were held last weekend along with an orientation for the parents at the JCC on Forbes Avenue.

"While every child auditions, everyone also gets a slot in the circus appropriate for their skills," Mr. Pfeffer, 54, said. "We like to challenge kids out of their comfort zone. For instance, if they juggle at home, I'm not going to cast them as a juggler. In my 31 years teaching circus skills, I've never rejected a single kid out of the half million I've dealt with.''

Mr. Pfeffer said some of the young performers have had vision or hearing impairments, had cancer and a variety of special needs, but "everyone has a chance to be a star."

Rehearsals started Monday and continue through today; classes are taught by a dozen teachers.

The shows are at 7 p.m. tonight and Friday; two shows on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tickets are $11 in advance and $13 at the gate. Each adult ticket gets two complimentary children's tickets.

Some 55 young performers have signed up.

"Those who don't participate are upset when they see the show; those who do participate are upset when we leave,'' Mr. Pfeffer said.

He said he teaches the discipline of goal-setting with circus skills as his medium and his program helps to build motivation and self-esteem.

After the show he said that patrons often leave and ask him where the local kids were. "They can't conceptualize that all the performers were local and that they learned their roles so quickly," he said.

Since the tour began in late May, Mr. Pfeffer said the troupe has logged almost 6,500 miles traveling to 10 cities in a motor home, truck and two additional vehicles. The weeklong stop here is the first time Circus of the Kids has visited Pittsburgh.

"We travel with a $40,000 to $50,000 wardrobe that outfits all the kids in the show, including a ringmaster who is decked out in a red jacket and top hat," he said.

Circus of the Kids visits private and public schools, community centers, camps and conventions from late January through late October. The troupe includes about a dozen teachers trained by Mr. Pfeffer and chosen for having "the right temperament."

Mr. Pfeffer grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., where the parks and recreation department offered a circus camp for kids. After participating in the camp, he started performing as a juggler at the age of 17 at Disney World during the winter and at Six Flags Great America near Chicago in the summer.

In 1979, his team won the championship at the International Juggling Competition in Amherst, Mass. While working as a circus skill teacher at Club Med in the Bahamas, he started putting shows together in which the children he taught became the performers. After forming his own business, he put on his first show at a summer computer camp in Connecticut in 1982.

"Over the years, I've worked with a whole range of children, including some that were abandoned, abused and neglected," he said. "Circus has been therapeutic for many because it's a transformational process that changes their lives."

A video of a circus is available at www.circusofthekids.com. Details: Liza Baron at 412-521-8010.

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Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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