Meeting Waldorf at the Circus.

As development coordinator for Meadowbrook, I was asked by a reporter why our school promotes Circus Smirkus.  On camera, a 30 second sound bite -  where to start!  Sure, from a development stand point it is a fundraiser but for me as a Waldorf parent this event has a value far beyond dollars and cents.  How to explain it?

An usher at a show attended by 107 day campers from Burrillville, RI shared some comments made by a group of young boys.  “I could do that,” they assured each other as they watched some of the opening tricks.  A little further into the show there was an exclamation – “I couldn’t even do that!”; though someone else thought his dad could.  It didn’t take long for them to realize they were no match for the trained and talented Smirkos (as the troupers call themselves).  By the end of the show all the boys were in agreement – “I want to learn to do that!”  Artistic director Troy Wunderle writes in the playbill that, “In addition to talent, [Circus Smirkus] programs strive to cultivate focused individuals with sturdy minds, solid work ethics, positive attitudes and humble hearts”.  Who doesn’t want that for their child?  As a parent I know that no-one inspires a child in the way another child can, for better or for worse!  The passionate, hard working, joyful Smirkos are a gift to everyone engaged with growing children.

Circus Smirkus has no animals, it doesn’t boast spectacular effects or extravagant sets.  It does have a highly professional and dedicated crew who produce extremely high quality, theme driven shows.  This meshes well with the Waldorf love of story, expressive movement and meaningful use of color and live music.  The success of each show depends on the skill and showmanship of the performers.  As physically demanding as any competitive sport, circus requires the highest levels of teamwork with performers literally putting their lives in each others’ hands as they hang and balance high above the ring.  In this youth circus as in Waldorf education relationships are built by facing challenges together, by following through with tasks and responsibilities – doing the chores behind the scenes as well as the fun stuff in the limelight.

Three of the 29 troupers this year are Waldorf students, a high proportion when compared to the number of Waldorf students in the general population.  This finding is consistent with past tours so I asked Sara Wunderle the assistant operations director if there were any qualities that made Waldorf students particularly well suited to joining the circus.  She said, “Smirkus loves Waldorf kids.  They are well rounded and fit in easily socially”.  As she looked for a word to define how Waldorf kids typically tackle the demands of circus life I suggested ‘independence’ but the difference was something else.  Finally she chose the word ‘competence’.  A well developed sense of self that helps the individual to meet anything that needs doing with a grounded, ‘can do’ matter-of-factness.  They can be relied upon to get the job done.  She also said that the Waldorf troupers out perform in the Smirkus ring and all continue to excel after graduating, be it at other circuses or some quite different career.

It’s great fun to be part of this event.  Many members of our school community volunteer their time and effort to help with the logistics of presenting Circus Smirkus in Rhode Island.  We also provide the hospitality of our homes to the performers, making friends and hearing their stories – they really are a great bunch of kids!  My family was thrilled to see our home-stay troupers again from last year.  Over two days of shows we also see thousands of new faces.  The circus is an opportunity to meet people from other walks of life, to partner with local businesses and share our values with hundreds of local families.  As a parent at the school, I am proud that we make this wonderful event available to our neighbors.  As a parent at home, I am delighted to see my children caught up in happy circus imaginings, inspired to practice some of the skills they’ve seen and full of the joyous possibilities of life.

Smirkos back stage

I would love to hear your comments on all things circus, Smirkus and what events like these mean to you!


Circus Camping in Vermont

Listening to the loons on Ricker Pond at daybreak.

Growing up in Britain, my only experience or impressions of summer camp came from a song I had heard on the radio; “Dearest Mudder, dearest Fadder, Here I am at, Camp Grenada…”  I remember wondering what poison ivy might be.  As a parent, summer camp was never really on my radar but my family’s love of circus changed that.  My children are almost 9 and just 7, of age for the 2 day with sleepover  Smirkling program Circus Smirkus offers in Lyndon Center, VT.   Green and beautiful Vermont with circus arts – what could be better?  As I signed the children up for camp, my spouse  retrieved his machete and mosquito net from the barn with another kind of camp in mind.  In June we strapped the canoe to the roof of the overstuffed van and headed north to a lean-to on Rickers Pond in Groton State Forest, about 45 minutes south of Lyndon Center.

We all roused early from our sleeping bags on the first day of camp.  A quick rinse in freezing water to remove the various odors of the outdoor life and we were off.  I have never dropped my children off at a place I have never seen with people I have never met to perform who knows what acts of daring or desperation.  As we drove up Rt 91 some feelings of trepidation began to stir but the welcome in Lyndon was warm and immediate.  Red shirted counsellors jumped and waved at the turning, directing us toward the registration area and a sea of purposeful people.  There were counsellors everywhere; friendly, helpful and fully engaged.  No feeling here of the dreaded baby sitter who needs money but is itching to catch up on some texting.  I had a feeling of happy recognition that this was the same reliable, professional and fun team I had experienced at Smirkus shows and while hosting troupers.  My feeling was confirmed as we went along the check in line.  There were over 70 kids, Mary decided to guess which two she had in front of her.  Wallace and Grommit?  Not Mac and Cheese… no 3rd sibling so not P,B & J…  But she and Megan didn’t need the files to recognize my son as that kid who wanted to spend his time upside down.

Historic Peacham, VT

Suddenly childless in the sunshine, two days and a night seemed a long time.  We  love exploring the path less traveled and Vermont is a paradise for back road adventures so off we went.  We found a roadside stand loaded with baked goods near the picture perfect village of Peacham.  Delicious wholewheat applesauce doughnuts.  A little further on a maple shaded cemetery with graves dating back to the Revolutionary War, peaceful neighbors to the caramel colored cows grazing among sun-drunk buttercups.  Stopping in Marshfield for a cup of coffee, we discovered Rainbow Sweets – definitely an off the beaten track experience!  Bill is in his 36th year as owner, pastry chef extraordinaire and straight-faced vaudeville act.  He treasures the uninitiated visitor so I won’t spoil it beyond saying he’s right when he tells you that you haven’t bought enough of the ‘dental diagnostic tool’ also known as chocolate butternut crunch.  We thoroughly enjoyed a full lunch with dessert and brought the children back for pizza night after camp.  In the little town of Groton we ambled into Artesano, an elegantly contemporary meadery.  Mead, wine made from honey, is mankind’s oldest fermented drink though Artesano’s refined use of spices such as cinnamon and chili is certainly modern.  We sampled and bought then visited the work room where the mead operation happens.  A delicious strawberry aroma wafted from the next room where artisanal ice cream was being made, you never know what you’re going to find around the corner in Vermont.

Next afternoon we returned to collect our campers and watch the performance of new skills and a pie throwing extravaganza.  It was a wonderful afternoon.  Everyone had been working hard and was pleased with the results.  The relationships between the counsellors and the kids and within the groups were clearly happy and strong, everyone was having a blast!  The pie fest was mannerly, as choreographed as any circus skit but the lack of chaos did not diminish the kids’ joy in pie-ing their counsellors, parents, each other and even themselves.   The experience, like my photos of it, was a bright, colorful blur of movement and laughter.  But my enduring impression is of a clear eyed, focused group of people who helped my daughter discover her inner clown and trusted their own competence enough to allow my son to safely climb 20 feet up a rope without head to toe bubble wrap and a lawyer in the wings.  This gift of confidence to my children comes from Smirkus Spirit; a willingness to greet life with enthusiasm and work hard in celebration of circus life and its inhabitants – all the talented, bruising, ridiculous glory of it.