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Tucson Circus Arts offers a different kind of summer camp

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It's a common scene at summer camp: Sweaty little bodies coated with Coppertone line up on the blacktop and await the start of a game. Other kids run gleefully into the woods to play tag. In a quiet cabin nearby, small groups of children gather to make crafts.

However, in sun-baked Tucson, summer camp looks a little different. There are no lakes to splash in, or dense woods to explore. Being outside all day isn't an option, either, so camp organizers need to be a little creative.

Such is the case at Tucson Circus Arts summer camp.

Held at Rhythm Industry Performance Factory on South Tyndall Avenue, the camp offers atypical activities—aerial silk, poi-spinning, stilt-walking, flexibility training and more.

As I entered the space, I saw kids doing a variety of things. Some were practicing aerial silk—acrobatics performed while suspended by ceiling-to-floor fabric. Others walked on large globes (like big exercise balls), and a few worked on their poi skills; poi is a performance art where a flexible cord with balls attached is swung in circular motion. Fire poi are often made of wicks and chains that are lit and swung in beautiful movements.

Nadia Hagen, artistic director of Flam Chen and the All Souls Procession, said that Tucson Circus Arts offers two camps in two-week sessions. (Visit www.tucsoncircusarts.com and www.rhythmindustry.org for information.) The second session ends Friday, July 2. An open-to-the-public recital takes place on Saturday, July 3.

Also on the camp agenda: taiko drumming, juggling and even a clown class. Juggling and clowns aside, circus arts are more similar to Cirque du Soleil than Barnum and Bailey's Funundrum (which just so happens to be in town through July 4).

Hagen said that the impetus for the camp came from interested parents. "We were already doing classes for adults. People kept coming up to us after (Flam Chen) shows with their kids. They would say, 'Wow! How did you learn to do that? I think my kid would love to learn that.' Then it was a matter of having the pieces in place, with instructors and access to a venue."

Hagen said circus arts and fire-spinning were not common when she started her career in the late '80s. "Now a lot of people spin fire. It's an art form that went in the last 15 years from having two or three people who did it to thousands. There are so many sites online, and even how-to tutorials."

Hagen said that Cirque du Soleil has been a big influence in circus arts' popularity. She also believes changing attitudes have played a part. "People are less and less content to be observers in their lives, to be a bystander and watch someone else do things. They want to create things on their own. Circus is a perfect example of that. ... When you accomplish something like (walking on stilts or doing aerial acrobatics), it expands possibilities for yourself, your friends and everyone else."

Hagen has seen great transformations in the kids she teaches. "Kids come in, and they are at such different levels. There's always a place where they can mentor someone else who doesn't have as much skill. Or they are in a place where they need to be mentored, and they can look to another kid. I think (kids) being able to do that for each other is pretty amazing."

Benjamin Bohlke-Gray and Isaiah Oster, both 12, have been enjoying circus-arts classes for more than a year. "It makes me feel special in a way. You really have to be committed to what you are doing," said Bohlke-Gray.

"It's really fun to be able to do this ... to have a skill that so many people miss out on," added Oster.

Both kids performed in last year's All Souls Procession—and Oster noticed a positive transformation. "I've been really shy of crowds most of my life, but that was a pretty big change, because there were (thousands) of people there. I'm not really scared of audiences anymore."

Bohlke-Gray said that performing circus arts builds character. "There are a lot of challenges. Sometimes you don't feel you're ready to do it. But once you do it, it changes your personality a lot."

The two boys said they have become good friends and have a long-term goal of performing as a duo.

Perhaps one day, they will look back fondly on the summer of 2010, smile and start a story with, "This one time at circus-arts camp ..."

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