Park District of Highland Park celebrates 20 years of circus camp

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The Park District of Highland Park celebrated the 20th anniversary of its popular Big Top/Little Top circus camp this summer. More than 40 local kids took center stage July 31 under a real circus tent to wow a crowd of 500 friends and family on tight ropes, unicyles, horses and other acrobatics. | Photo courtesy of the Park District of Highland Park


PERFORMANCE: July 31 under a circus tent at Fink Park


SKILLS: tight ropes, unicycles, stilts, juggling, bareback horseback riding

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HIGHLAND PARK — More than 40 local kids helped the Park District of Highland Park celebrate last week the 20th anniversary of one of the district’s most unique, popular and longest-running summer camps.

The local fourth- through eighth-graders traversed tight ropes, spun around on unicycles, walked on stilts, juggled batons and danced ballet moves on horseback July 31 under a large circus tent during the culminating performance of the Big Top/Little Top Circus Camp.

“The kids get a lot of bumps, bruises and blisters from this, but they enjoy it,” said Julie Naatz, the district’s recreation manager. “It’s an amazing thing to see it come together.”

More than 100 kids came out when Circus Camp opened eight weeks ago. Those that stayed around for the second session were able to showcase their summer adventure in front of nearly 500 friends and family members at Larry Fink Park.

The anniversary show — the first performance under an authentic circus tent — went on without a hitch, organizers reported. The circus students wowed the crowds with 11 circus skills.

“The atmosphere was kind of magnified with the real circus tent,” Naatz said. “They really felt like professional performers.”

Few involved last week had more Circus Camp experience than Highland Park native Amy Blank.

Her first circus session came when she was in fourth-grade growing up in Highland Park. Now a teacher in Peoria, Blank drives back home to Highland Park for the summer to teach at the camp.

Blank explained that she had so much fun as a camper, she wanted to come back as a counselor as a teen. That eventually turned into her new title as assistant camp director.

“The best part is that it’s different,” said Blank, who performed as Freckles the Clown during her performing stint 15 years ago. “When I went back to school no one else had that same type of experience that I had.”

Her favorite circus skill remains the Spanish Web. The performer spins and poses hanging in the air with his or her wrist or ankle tied into a rope. She also enjoyed the stilts, which Blank explained is much easier to learn than riding a unicycle.

She even brought her circus skills into her classroom in Peoria. Blank juggled in front of her class to teach first-graders that everyone has unique skills and interests.

“It’s a part of me now,” Blank said. “My heart is there and I wanted to give that to other people.”

At least one local circus camp veteran went on to join a professional, traveling circus group.

Nina Carden chose the district’s Circus Camp at 8 years old because the mix of theater, dance, physicality appealed to her. She was quickly hooked.

She continued with a circus school that had opened up in Evanston; attended and then taught at Circus Smirkus, a renowned camp in Vermont, which eventually led to her current job with the George Carden Circus Spectacular, which put on six shows earlier this year in Hoffman Estates.

“This has to be in your blood,” Carden said. “It’s not easy, but I love the nomadic lifestyle.”

The troupe of 50 performers and 50 crew members puts on about 700 shows a year and spends at least 10 months on tour.

Carden’s husband, Larry, is the group’s elephant trainer, and her father-in-law is the owner.

She dances, performs three different types of aerial acts and rides an elephant. Before shows she interacts with audiences, allowing them to pet one of three boa constrictors she might be holding.

Helping local kids find their passions or try out new things for a summer is exactly why Circus Camp has been so successful, Park District staff said.

As the district’s most expensive program, Naatz said it’s a worthwhile investment. There are only about 30 park district circus camps nationwide, and very few in the Midwest.

Needing specialized equipment, often shipped in from across the country, the district has collected about $60,000 worth of circus equipment over the years. The cost for participants is $2,000.

“It started small with about 30 kids and it keeps growing,” Naatz said. “It’s become a staple of our summer camp programming.”