The Joy of Teaching Circus Arts

Some people may think that the circus is a dying form of entertainment. But I am here to tell you that it is alive and well. Despite the recent closing of the legendary Ringling Brothers circus show, other iterations of the circus are on the rise. And the younger generation is picking up on this, opting to put their iPhones down and pick up some juggling props or hang from fabric silks attached to the ceiling. The circus is, and always will be, fun. The circus somehow connects to something deep in our souls, both as performers and as audience, that there is something such as wonder and amazement in the universe. And we can participate in that wonder by performing everything from ridiculous comedy to death-defying human feats.

Because the circus is bigger than any one person or performer, it is a joy to pass this legacy on to the next generation. We are just pilgrims in this world – and the art and culture we create is part of a larger story that strings from one century to the next. The circus arts were passed on to me from those who have gone before me and now I get to pass it on to those who will be here after me.

For the past two weeks, I was the juggling instructor at the second annual Circus Arts Camp in Richmond, VA (the only one of its kind in Virginia). Geared towards youth between the ages of 9-15, this camp teaches kids the skills of juggling, clowning, drama, silks, puppetry, hooping, stilt-walking, and more. I teamed up with other circus artists in Richmond (such as Heidi Rugg, Christopher Hudert, Magnolia Ocasio, and Heather Bailey) and we worked at transferring our skills to a new generation of circus performers.

Without further ado, I would like to show you some video clips and pictures of the campers doing what they do best – the circus! They may not have run away with the circus in a literal sense, but for two weeks, they did so with their hearts. I’m so proud of these young people!

Teaching kids to use their talents for good

When I was in elementary and middle school, I was small. I couldn’t keep up with the stronger kids in the popular sports like football and basketball. I was pushed around and bullied by the bigger kids.

Then I discovered a unique talent – juggling. While in fifth grade, my friend Tim taught me how to juggle three balls. I was fascinated by the process and challenge of juggling. I practiced every night after school for about two weeks and finally figured out how to juggle. But I didn’t stop at three. With the help of library books, other jugglers that I met along the way, and lots of practice, I worked my way up to five, six, and seven objects within a few more years.

Then came the high school variety show. I was still one of those “geek” kids who was never in the popular crowd. But my friends talked me into performing my juggling in front of my entire high school for this talent night. So I pulled out the machete juggling and the six-foot ladder balance. The crowd went nuts. I had finally discovered something that (1) I was good at and (2) brought joy to other people.

Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Juggling is an activity that makes me feel alive in a different way than most things – like I was made to do it. And that activity is something different for every person.

But it doesn’t stop there. God gave us each different gifts and talents so that we can shine His light, share His love, bring peace where there is pain, bring goodness and joy to others….all to the glory of His name.

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” – 1 Peter 4:10, NIV

You see, we all have different gifts and strengths, which means we NEED one another. Your strengths fill in for my weaknesses and vice versa. That is why community is so important. In community, we are an unstoppable force of strengths for the greater good of the world.

Research has shown that there is a direct correlation between the use of people’s strengths in their jobs and the overall success of the organizations those people work for. In other words, the best organizations are the ones where most of the people use most of their gifts, talents, and strengths most of the time (see the Gallup C12 engagement survey).

So how can we teach and encourage kids to discover and use their talents for the greater good?

  1. Teach them about calling and vocation. Have discussions about how talents are God-given and that we can develop them through continued work and practice. Check out Visions of Vocation by Steven Garber and Kingdom Calling by Amy Sherman for more on these topics.
  2. Give children every opportunity you can to explore all the different kinds of subjects, activities, arts, and sports in the world. And do so in a way that allows children to freely choose the things they want to pursue in life. When we put the “toys” in front of them, they will pick their favorites and discover their passions and talents.
  3. Consider donating time and/or money to organizations that provide children with opportunities they would otherwise not have. Not all kids have the same amount of opportunities, so we as adults need to be aware of this discrepancy and do everything in our power to offer all children the opportunities to explore different activities in this world.
  4. Teach them about community and how we need one another in this life. Our strengths and talents fill in the gaps of weaknesses and challenges in others (and vice versa). When we come together in groups, teams, and communities, we become unstoppable forces.
  5. Lead kids in service projects. Kids love to serve. They want to serve. When they serve their communities for the greater good, they realize that they have gifts and talents to offer the world. Talk about how God gave us these gifts so that we can help others and bring glory to God.

What toy will be the next “fidget spinner”?

If you work with kids, then you saw the fidget spinner come and go this past summer. The popularity of this fad toy (which has actually been around for quite some time) peaked sometime in June 2017. But by July and August, it seemed that every child in North America had at least a dozen of them, if not, more. Their interest waned. And parents were tired of buying yet another metal and plastic spinny thingy.

Kids are kids. They will always find a new fad toy to enjoy every season. Sometimes that is driven by brilliant marketing campaigns by large toy companies (like the Pet Rock or Tickle-Me-Elmo) or simply by the interests of the children aided by the viral nature of social media (like the Fidget Spinner or the water bottle flipping craze).

I have come across three toys that I predict could be contenders for an upcoming viral fad. Only history will show if I get any of this right. But I have found some toys that are basic in design yet complex enough to capture one’s attention for hours on end. Here they are….

Kendama

The amazing ball-on-string-on-wooden-stick toy that has an infinite array of possible tricks and variations. I have been aware of them for years but never spent much time with one until now. I have some basic tricks down but if you want to see ninja level, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFiiXkonsXY&t=228s

 

Jacob’s Ladder

This small toy made of wood and ribbon has been around at least since the Colonial period in America. The segments roll downward and appear to magically transform themselves like a magic falling ladder. I’ve seen children and adults stare in mesmerization (is that a word?) at this very simple toy. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiIpUUsIsVE

 

Mokuru

This is a stick toy that is weighted in such a way that it rolls and dances in different directions when you manipulate it. Just watch this video to get the gist of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7TwE4Qv2nQ

These kids ran away with the circus…

I’m so proud of the first class of students of Camp Carnival RVA! This was the first circus arts camp of its kind ever in the state of Virginia. Every day for two weeks, these kids got to “run away” from home and join a variety of instructors who taught them the ins and outs of circus skills. Don’t worry, their parents/guardians dropped them off and picked them up at the end of each day.

One day, I was driving to the arts camp with my family in the car. Our six-year old asked, “Where are we going, Daddy?”

I said, “To my workshop.”

She said, “Where you build things?”

Then my wife chimed in and said, “Yes, where Daddy builds jugglers!”

I love Sarah’s answer. Myself and several other circus arts instructors had the privilege of building young circus artists. What a joy to share our passions with the younger generation and see the future of variety arts innovating and flourishing.

Here in Richmond, Virginia, there happens to be a large enough contingency of variety artists to sustain a camp like this. Heidi Rugg from Barefoot Puppets taught puppetry. Heather Bailey of Host of Sparrows Aerial Circus taught silks and aerial. Seasoned clown performer Christopher Hudert taught clowning. Natalie Kane of Circular Expressions led the students in hooping. And yours truly got to teach juggling and diabolo workshops. The day camp consisted of classes in the various arts and culminated with a demonstration of skills for the parents on the final day of camp.

Enjoy some pics of camp!

Fidget Spinner Bible Lesson

So here’s a way to teach a Bible lesson using a fidget spinner….

What Really Lasts?

Bring and show off as many of these fad toys as you can find (show pictures if you don’t have the actual toy):

  • the hula hoop
  • Lincoln Logs
  • the pet rock
  • the Rubix Cube
  • Slinky
  • the slap bracelet
  • Beanie Babies
  • Super Soakers
  • Webkinz
  • Razor Scooter
  • Silly Bandz
  • the water bottle flip
  • and now……the fidget spinner!!!

Then, if you have some skills, show off a few fidget spinner tricks or have a volunteer come up and do some.

Then read Isaiah 40:6b-8:

“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,  but the word of our God endures forever” (NIV).

So the Bible says that our human existence here on earth is very temporary. People come and people go. The same can be said about the things we make – buildings, clothes, airplanes, and even toys! All these toys come and go. Their fame will only last for a short time. Fads come and go, but the Word of the Lord stands forever….

You see, God is eternal. He has no beginning and no end. The same can be said about His Word – which we have in the form of the Bible.

Don’t put your trust and your joy and your excitement in these temporary man-made things (like fads), put your hope and passion into God and His Word. His Word will last forever, long past these toy fads. So let’s learn from Him and His Word!

Feel free to show this video as part of the lesson – I combine the fads of 2016 and 2017!

Want more Bible lesson ideas for ministry to kids and families? Sign up for my free newsletter here.

Need a speaker/entertainer for your next event? Check out my promo videos here.

Want to learn how to juggle? Here are the basics!….

Awesome Crowd Game Ideas

I do a lot of large group events. I’m always on the lookout for games that are fun and easy for huge crowds. When people come together in large groups, there is a lot of potential energy that can be tapped in the form of socialization, laughter, competition, and shared human experiences.

So here are some of the resources I have found to be particularly helpful in leading fun experiences for crowds of people:

  1. CrowdControlGames

    This organization creates and sells (at super affordable rates) crowd games that you can run on your computer and then project on the big screen. Browse around at all they have to offer – http://crowdcontrolgames.com/

  2. Crowd Thumb Wrestling

    How about crowd thumb wrestling?! Invented by monochrom and officially called “massive Multiplayer Thumb-Wrestling.” Here is that game led by a game designer on the TED stage…. 

  3. Crowd Thunderstorm

    You can also lead your crowd in making the sounds of a thunderstorm. This video shows a choir on stage doing it. But you can just as easily lead an audience of any size in the same exercise:

  4. Group Games Galore!

    I have also compiled a blog post category of group games over the years on this blog. There are over twenty entries and growing, so read through all these great crowd game ideas such as “Heads or Tails” and “Bring Me This.” Click here.

 

 

The Thanksgiving Tree

photo-1 photo-2 photo-3
My wife and I had a debate a few nights ago over the meaning of the Christmas Tree. What ensued was a discussion about the “why” behind traditions that we often just take for granted. She doesn’t want to do things just because “we’ve always done it that way.” She likes to know the meaning and purpose in things. And she wants that meaning to be important. So she decided to go ahead and start a new tradition in our house – a tradition with meaning. She made a Thanksgiving Tree.

I did not know this was a thing. But apparently it is. And Sarah made her own version of it. She asked me to find some sticks and branches outside. So I fetched some and put them in a jar. Then she and Kezzie cut leaf shapes out of fall-colored construction paper (orange, brown, etc.). Finally, everyone wrote something they were thankful for on the leaf cut-outs and hung it on the tree.

We had so much fun and it gave us a chance to remember all the things we are so thankful for. It also looks good in our foyer. I guess we’ve started a bit of a tradition in our house.

Hamilton: An American Musical – Chicago Review

imageLast night, I had the priviledge of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-award winning musical Hamilton in it’s Chicago iteration. I have been familiar with the soundtrack for months and I will say that the opportunity to view the show live adds several dimensions to the show that will not let “Hamilfans” down.

If you are not familiar with Hamilton: An American Musical, I would suggest you take a listen and find out for yourself what all the hype is about. Miranda slays it with poetic lyricism not seen in musical theater since Sondheim. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work, among plenty of other accolades. Where else can you find someone who rhymes “abolitionist” with “show me where the ammunition is“? Or take this lyric from “Guns and Ships”:

How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower

Somehow defeat a global superpower?

How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire

Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’s flag higher?

Miranda is not only a brilliant lyricist, but he crafted an entire show (along with director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire) that merges today’s pop culture lingua franca of Hip-Hop with a lesser-known but incredibly fascinating story in American history. It is a story of a poor orphan from the Caribbean who fights and writes his way up to Founding-Father status during the birth of our nation. His success story then turns into tragedy and the audience is left pondering life’s deep concepts such as the seemingly indiscriminate nature of love, life, death, war, and “who tells your story.” There is comedy, espionage, adultery, forgiveness, and of course, multiple pistol duels. One of the most evident things about the show is the ethnic diversity of the cast. Instead of casting all-white Founding Fathers like the now decades-old musical 1776, Miranda casts the players to represent what America is today – a colorful mix of heritages that show how far we’ve come since the late 18th Century. It is at the same time a well-played subversive move in the performing arts, indicating that we still have a long way to go in many respects in terms of Jefferson’s ideals of equality and liberty in our nation.

Regarding the Chicago show, I recently read an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Delta Sky Magazine. In it, he says that “the kid is off to college,” which essentially means that Hamilton has now matured to the point that it can thrive without his direct nightly participation. He was right. In the opening song, I will admit that I felt slightly betrayed because the voices and actors on stage were not the original Broadway cast (which I knew going into this). But it took only a matter of minutes to hear these new voices come into their own and rock the stage in the their own right.

Ari Afsar, who plays Eliza Hamilton, was one of the highlights of the show. Flanked by the experienced Karen Olivio (Angelica) and Samanthan Marie Ware (“and Peggy” :), Ari anchored the strong and beautiful harmony of the Schulyer sisters. Their powerful performances in “The Schuyler Sisters”, “Helpless”, and “Satisfied” takes your breath away. Later in the show, when Afsar sings the slow-burn lament aptly named “Burn,” you are caught in a trance as she plays with real fire on stage and nails the deep sense of betrayal in both her vocals and acting.

An unexpected standout performer was Chris De’Sean Lee. He just finished his Junior year at Belmont University and is now Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in this Hamilton Chricago show. I love Daveed Diggs in the Broadway cast for this role and you would think that he could never be upstaged. But in my opinion, Lee did just as good or better. His French accent was way more believable than Diggs’. And though I never saw Diggs on stage, Lee filled every last bit of the role you would expect in terms of his flair, animated personality, stage presence, and “working the crowd.”

Miguel Cervantes fills the tough shoes of Miranda’s Hamilton extremely well. He shows you that he is just like his country: “young, scrappy, and hungry” with his commanding vocals and articulate rapping (which is necessary if the audience wants to understand all the creative words in the songs). Equally strong was Joshua Henry, who played a convincing Aaron Burr – probably the most difficult character to portray because of his ongoing internal struggle for meaning and external fight for notoriety.

The lighting design was a pleasant treat that one can only experience in the live show. For example, when Angelica sings about Benjamin Franklin’s eureka moment with his key, kite, and “light,” the upper stage flashes a set of lights right on cue with the words. The lights also work in some shadow magic when Washington makes the Biblical reference to sitting under his own vine. But the best lighting of all comes in Hamilton’s song, “Hurricane.” And I’ll just say that you have to see the show yourself to see what the lighting does in that song because you’re already spoiled with the fact that Burr shoots Hamilton. I don’t want to spoil everything for you 🙂

Another dimension one can only see live is the choreography. The ensemble rocked it with a nearly three-hour aerobic display of “all-in” modern and and Hip-Hop dance to tell the story. They were not merely eye candy to fill the stage. While the lead characters told the story in song and acting, the ensemble displayed the narrative by dancing (and singing) the transcendental world of emotions, feelings, consciousness, and even conscience of the characters. Of all the aspects of the show, that was the dimension that surprised me the most and the one that will stick with me the longest as I reflect on the depth of this work of art.

Finally, I cannot review the show without mentioning the brilliant comic relief performance by Alexander Gemignani, who plays King George. His subtle mannerisms and pious patronizing were perfect in the role of a nihilistic monarch who sings the blues of losing America like a pouty ex-boyfriend singing a break-up song.

In summary, go listen to the soundtrack. Then find out when the tour comes to your city. And get on the ticket-seller e-mail notification list, because you’ll have about a two-hour window to secure your ticket for a show eight months ahead before the rest of your city snatches a ticket. You will want to be in the room where it happens.

 

Note: Since this blog focuses on topics surrounding kids and families, I’ll add an addendum here that I suggest that parents pre-screen the lyrics and thematic elements of the show before playing it and/or attending the show with their children (the album has explicit warnings). There is language, violence, and adult themes such as the adulterous affair between Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds.

Cutting Down Old Trees

woods-1072819_1920I went on a camping trip with some friends this past weekend at a local state park. We went on a hike through the woods and at one point we came into a clearing where about five acres of large-growth pines and other trees had been bulldozed – on state park property. It was quite an eyesore on such a tranquil hike, so one of my friends asked the park ranger about the clearing.

He said that every so often, the trees can grow so old and tall that they suffocate any new and fresh growth that is needed for a diverse and healthy ecosystem. So there comes a time where it is better to get rid of the old in order to make space for the new, fresh, and diverse growth.

And here is the profound point here: the new, fresh growth cannot come unless the old growth is torn down. You can’t have both.

That got me thinking about life and even the show that I perform. Are there things in my life or in my show that are “old growth”? Maybe something that I have worked on for years and am very proud of, but I over-value it and thus prevent myself from growing in new and exciting areas of my life and my show.

At one of my shows several years ago, I flew into Mississippi and my luggage (with all my show props) did not arrive in time for my show. That was only the second time it has ever happened to me in over a decade of full-time traveling and performing. What did I do? I had to get creative and perform for my waiting audience with whatever I could find nearby in the town of the event or at the venue. I grabbed chairs and ladders from the local church, fruit from the local grocery store (after paying for it, of course :). When I did my show, people loved it and nobody knew that I had performed without my “old growth” props. That show taught me something: that I do not NEED those tride and true items that I think are so necessary. In fact, it got me out of my box and forced me to get creative and come up with new tricks and ideas on the spot for a waiting audience. I have taken that attitude ever since – and my show has been more diverse and evolving than it has ever been before.

The old adage, “necessity is the mother of invention” is so true here. But in order for us to find new and exiting paths in our lives, we need to place ourselves in situations that force necessity upon us. I know that requires taking risks, but that is the only way we can grow. That might mean traveling, spending time with people you normally don’t spend time with, or removing a particular “sacred cow” in your life. Trust me, it will be worth it.

Are the Sciences Better Than the Arts?

Mega-bank Wells Fargo recently put out an advertisement for their upcoming “Teen Day.” In it, the wording appears to suggest that the sciences are a higher calling in life than the arts. Many celebrities in the arts took to Twitter to make the case that we should not send a message to teens that makes them think STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is necessarily superior to the arts.

wellsfargo

The ad could be perceived to be saying that the young woman and man were once artists (ballerina and actor, respectively), but then chose a more meaningful path in life such as one of an engineer or botanist. Celebrity Donna Lynn Champlin pointed out that the highest salary of an actor for 2016 is $64,000,000 versus the highest-paid botanist: just over $165,000. She asked Wells Fargo, “u sure ur a bank?”

In their defense, Wells Fargo apologized for the misunderstanding and removed the ad campaign.

As someone whose full-time vocation is in the arts and humanities (juggling, entertainment, and education), I have to say that I have no regrets in life for choosing the arts over the sciences. Do I think that one is more important than the other? No. In fact, I don’t think we should create such a dichotomy between the two. Life is both an art and a science. Have you ever seen great architecture? That is the blending of the arts and the sciences. In fact, what I do (juggling), is taking the physics of motion and materializing it in the form of a movement art.

But if someone (especially an aspiring teen) is dreaming of a life in the arts, we do them a disservice by trying to make them think that being a botanist is a better use of their life. The same can be said in the opposite direction. If a child wants to grow up and be a chemist, by all means we should not tell them that it would be better for them to join the circus.

I’ve been studying philosophy for a class recently and read that Aristotle made the case that though many vocations in life are clearly useful for a productive society (such as the sciences), there are other disciplines that seem less utilitarian but are just as important and “should be valued for their own sake,” such as music (the arts). Why? He said that “leisure” was a vital part of the human existence and argued that it was “noble” and contributed to the wholeness of life. He said, “To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls” (Ozmon, Howard A. and Samuel M. Craver. Philosophical foundations of education. Eighth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. 2008, pp. 73-74).

I’m not anti-STEM. I am simply bothered when people think that STEM is all there is in life and education (or that it is inherently better than the arts and humanities). Life is both STEM and Art. We need both. And we should expose our children towards both and communicate to them the importance of both. And as they grow, they will each discover the unique blend of science and art that may exist in their life calling and career.