For more than 120 Florida State University students, this is the best of all worlds. After all, who else can say they ran away to college to join the circus?
The FSU Flying High Circus, that is. Now in its 61st year, the circus was created just after the women's university became co-ed, partly to get the new male students involved in campus activities.
The football program was begun about the same time, but "The circus became so popular that the football coaches asked the circus to perform at halftime, to get people to come to the games,'' says Kate Salamone, one of the four full-time circus employees and a 2005 FSU graduate.
Hard to imagine that now. The circus may not pack them in like football these days but summer is the time to see the student-performers in action.
More than two dozen students create the Circus by the Sea, for a seven-week run at Panama City, beginning June 13.
A couple dozen more will be in Callaway Gardens, in western Georgia, for a 48th summer of performances. In both of these locations, the college students will conduct circus "camps,'' teaching children some acts.
'Rah, rah, circus!'
Salamone's story echoes those of so many current performers.
"I had been a competitive gymnast for nine years and had been a cheerleader before I got to campus,'' but she didn't consider herself good enough for the Seminole team. Salamone gravitated toward the circus.
"When I began performing, I fell in love with it. You wanted to do anything you could, to stay involved.''
That's why students such as Casey Dellinger, 21, and Lindsay Weber, 20, both from St. Petersburg, spend 15 to 20 hours a week rehearsing their acts. Dellinger graduated from Canterbury High School and Weber from Lakewood.
Under the big top, which covers the traditional three rings, dietetics major Weber performs on the flying trapeze.
"I swing out, let go of the bar, do tricks before I'm grabbed by the catcher, look pretty and return to my bar,'' she says.
She is also part of a three-woman act that performs synchronized maneuvers. How high are they above the sawdust?
"I don't actually know; I've heard something about 30 feet.''
That is the height and while Weber says she doesn't look down while swinging, she knows that if she should fall, a safety net stretches well beyond the trajectory of the trapeze.
Establishing a routine
The safety nets are raised and lowered often during the two-hour show. Down, the nets are moved to the side to clear the rings for skaters, clowns, the slack wire (a few feet above the ground, it sways with each step by the performers), a bicyclist who pedals while four others climb on him, and the teeter board.
During the final dress rehearsal in late March, it is this shortened see-saw act that causes the most problems.
In this routine, a female performer stands on one end of the board, then either one or two male colleagues jump on the other end to catapult her into the air.
"It's like your childhood dream of jumping down onto stuff,'' cheerfully explains Joe Mason, 20 and a Clearwater Central Catholic graduate.
Depending on the trick, the female performer flies up and moves slightly backward. She is supposed to wind up on the shoulders of a male colleague or settle into a chair atop a metal pole balanced on the shoulders of one of the men.
In the rehearsal, however, the two female performers occasionally miss these landings, dropping awkwardly a couple of feet. But they don't fall to the floor because most performers working above the ground (though not on the trapeze) wear safety harnesses.
Muscling his way in
Also in the teeter board routine is Joseph Murphy, a 22-year-old graduate student in urban regional planning. Murphy, who played three sports at Largo High, says he got interested in the circus only because a female student in his Bible-study class talked him into coming to the open house.
"Once I got here, the director said, 'You're a big guy, we need you.' He put me in the adagio act that night.'' This dance act has one or two men tossing a woman into the arms of another man.
Now in his fourth year, Murphy still performs the adagio and the teeter board. "I'm there for my muscles,'' he admits.
"But I'd love to do teeter for life. I'll definitely come back for the alumni shows. This is really a family.''
Sometimes literally: Joe Mason's brother, Charlie, 22, a criminology major and also a CCC grad, also does the teeter board routine.
Like other performers, Charlie is in other acts, in his case, adagio and juggling.
The show must go on
Underneath his black tights, George Neill wears a brace on one knee. But it doesn't stop him from balancing on a rolla board — a board atop a single, unattached, axle in the middle — while holding one of the female performers above his head.
Neill, an environmental studies major from New Port Richey, graduated last month and will leave the troupe.
Limited to five years of performing, all of the students face not just graduation but also the real world.
Dellinger, who also graduated last month, allowed herself to look ahead:
"My brother said he'd drive me up to Canada, so I could try out for Cirque du Soleil. But I know I'm not that good . . . so probably I'll actually grow up and be an adult.''
Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8496.