Every child dreams of this, but now it is possible! Step out of the box and under the big top alongside ringleaders—Paul Miller of Circus Mojo and Steve Roenker of My Nose Turns Red—who will teach you to perform as a clown, unicyclist, juggler, aerialist, and more while tickling your funny bone until you’re pink.
Out races a character in a bright orange wig, wearing a giant polka dot tie and rainbow suspenders. He glances up at the crowd, eyeing them as he continues running. Wham! Into the clown car he bounces, falling down to peals of laughter from the audience.
These two northern Kentucky community leaders, Paul Miller and Steve Roenker, run different businesses with the same mission. They are clowns, community advocates, fitness gurus, and social workers all wound into silly costumes and big feet, teaching circus arts.
Paul Miller was in his final year of college in 1996 when he dropped out to become a clown. “I lost my scholarship and everything,” he says. He later went back and finished his theater degree, but first he did a stint with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Now he’s clowning around with his own organization, Circus Mojo.
Miller founded Circus Mojo in 2009 to inspire people of all ages and abilities with the circus arts. Through classes, workshops, and performances, Miller and his five-member staff entertain, teach, boost confidence, and break down barriers—often while wearing some ridiculously large pants.
His employees’ titles are unlike most you’ll find in other small businesses: juggler, aerialist, hula hooper, unicyclist. And his students are just as diverse, including at-risk youth, seniors, those with disabilities, corporate executives and sales teams, sports teams, the incarcerated—anyone just looking for some fun.
Miller transforms into his alternate personality, Pauly the Clown. You can easily spot him in his suspenders and goofy plaid pants, wearing mismatched shoes and a bowler, which he often uses to start his act. Throwing the hat high in the air, then rolling it down his arm and tossing it to a fellow staff member, they quickly engage the audience.
Soon they pull out juggling rings, sometimes inviting onlookers to get in the middle of the act. Next come peacock feathers, balanced first on a hand, then a fingertip—with extras passed out to audience members along with a few quick secrets for success.
“For bigger performances, we’ll bring in experienced circus performers from around the world—acrobats, jugglers, aerialists, tight-wire walkers,” Miller says. In smaller venues, acts such as plate spinning and ball walking are less complex but no less entertaining.
Beyond the big top
So far Miller has found few limitations with the programs Circus Mojo can offer. They tour all across the nation and can “work in a space as small as a garage to a large convention center.”
CircAbility is designed expressly for people with special needs; they work with those who have physical, mental, and behavior disabilities.
Circus Wellness Therapy takes medical clowning to hospitals, involving patients and helping to relieve family stress.
Circus Scholastics, largely funded by Toyota, is a unique after-school tutoring program combining circus skills and homework.
Circus Wellness has performed at a center for the blind, in a juvenile detention center, for a grief counseling session, and with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Miller was looking to move from Chicago back to northern Kentucky where he and his wife grew up, so they could raise their children closer to family. He shopped around when searching for a home base for Circus Mojo. The small river town of Ludlow had what he needed: an old movie theater with a large, open space perfect for performances.
Built in 1946, the Ludlow Theater had long been vacant and required a good deal of work to get it circus-ready. Now, colorful posters line the walls and bright floor-to-ceiling fabric panels serve as the stage’s backdrop. The space offers room for training, classes, performances, and artist residencies.
This year, Circus Mojo will expand into their newly acquired training space in an old house and church in downtown Ludlow, devoting about 20,000 square feet to circus arts when complete.
More than a ringmaster
Miller is highly invested in developing the arts in this community. He notes that the arts give struggling neighborhoods a jump-start by attracting people and new businesses to the area. Circus Mojo has already exposed dozens of national and international visitors to Ludlow. And it’s attracting others from nearby for the first time.
According to Miller, Circus Mojo’s makeup is rare. “There are fewer than a dozen dedicated circus buildings in the United States, and we’re one of them,” he says.
He quickly changes persona from Paul Miller the business owner and community activist—discussing local politics and educational opportunities—to Pauly the Clown, grabbing his chair and balancing it on his chin with ease. And while he may be silly in his work, he’s completely serious about his business.
Miller loves the circus arts because he sees them build coordination, cooperation, and imagination in people from all walks of life. But he’s taking it one step further as he seeks to use the circus industry to evolve a community. “Circus Mojo is a space to learn how to use the circus as a means of social change,” says Miller.
“I always wanted to try something new. I’m crazy like that,” says Serena Golz, her eyes dancing mischievously, a smile engulfing her face. “Clowning really suits me.”
And it is laughter that rises about the cacophony today as 20 or so grade-schoolers and their mentors gather in the gymnasium of the John G. Carlisle Elementary School in Covington to show off their newly acquired circus skills.
They can barely contain their exuberance long enough to listen to “Mr. Steve,” director of My Nose Turns Red, a Kentucky-based youth circus and nonprofit organization that teaches young people (and the occasional adult) the art of the one-ring circus and the theatrical clown.
Mr. Steve is Steve Roenker, co-founder of My Nose Turns Red. Roenker and his wife, Jean St. John, moved to northern Kentucky after touring and performing as vaudeville-style clowns. They incorporated the circus and theater company in 1984 and held their first youth circus in this same gymnasium as part of a community grant. Today they teach circus skills in schools and community centers throughout the region, involving approximately 100 kids each week.
“Gather ’round,” Mr. Steve urges. “Let’s form a circle. I have some things for you.”
Roenker hands out bright red tee shirts with the company logo splashed across the back, and round, red plastic noses. The kids get even more excited.
Thirteen-year-old Golz stands with me on the sidelines watching. She has already studied circus arts for two years. Today, she is a mentor. She is waiting for her cue to begin helping these first-time performers, a role she clearly relishes.
“Is it hard?” I ask.
“You just have to learn to get your balance and your footing right, and then it’s not too hard,” she explains.
“What do you like to do most?”
“Juggling and the German Wheel,” the dark-haired tween tells me. I make a note to find out what a German Wheel is. It is two metal hoops joined by handles, which the performer holds or stands on. The wheel spins, flips, or rolls while the performer climbs in and out or flips around inside the hoop.
Mr. Steve calls for his assistants—Golz and several other middle- and high-schoolers, plus his daughter, Natalie, a freshman theater major at Morehead State University. The older kids begin corralling the younger kids into lines and preparing the circus paraphernalia for today—stilts, peacock feathers, and a huge red ball.
Circus music fills the air via a boom box, and one by one, the kids perform the first of three stunts to a clapping audience composed mostly of parents and siblings.
They begin by walking across the room on stilts, a few turning circles or taking big steps to prove their mastery. After each stunt, the performer yells, “Hup!” which is circus for “Ta Da.” Hup is followed by a unique movement called “styling”—chosen by each child—a fling of their arms, a smile, a funny face, a jump. It doesn’t matter as long as it is their personal signature. They showcase their individual personalities and never fail to get a laugh and applause.
The feathers come out next, the children balancing a feather in the palm of their hand, on their chin, and in the bend of their arm. Hups all around, and it is time for the finale.
The huge red ball is rolled out. It is almost as big as the youngest students. One by one, the kids stand on the hard plastic ball. Most require a little assistance from Mr. Steve at first, but ultimately they all stand erect, their arms thrust out from their shoulders, looks of satisfaction on their faces.
Today, there is an unexpected treat as Natalie Roenker, home on spring break, hula hoops atop the ball. The younger performers look on in awe, recognizing the strong body core and balance required to do this.
Those physical benefits, plus the joy of performing, are what the youth circus is really about, according to Roenker.
“Circus is when the arts meet physical fitness,” Roenker says. “There is no direct competition, and this is not a sport, so it works for kids who are not competitive. It is a workout, though. It takes an enormous amount of physical fitness to perform. It also increases the students’ leadership abilities.”
For performers like Serena Golz, all of that matters little. “I just love making people laugh,” she says, laughing heartily herself. Hup!
They offer weekly classes as well as summer camps for kids the weeks of June 4, 11, 18, 25;
July 9, 16, 23, 30; August 6.
A special fund-raiser on June 7 will feature Jerry Springer, who steps from your TV into a circus ring where he will juggle, spin plates, and join an army of clowns at a local event. Tickets $40 general, $100 VIP; go online to www.circusmojo.com to purchase.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: >Circus arts and clowns
Learn more about how circus arts generate social change at Circus Mojo through “social circus,” a concept that refers to using the circus arts with at-risk youth to develop them personally and socially. Then, from My Nose Turns Red, discover what type of clown you would like to be. Go to join the circus.