Balancing act: Delaney McCarthy joined the circus without leaving home

In the summer after she turned 8, Delaney McCarthy saw thecircus for the first time.

The Linden Hills girl sat smitten, alongside her mother, Maria, in the Circus Juventas dome on the south end of St. Paul, watching as performers swung on trapezes and leapt through spokes of German wheels, tiptoed on globes and spun on Spanish webs.

Halfway through the show, Delaney turned to Maria in the dark and whispered: "Can I join the circus?"

On their way out, Maria saw brochures advertising classes. She reached for them.

Two-and-a-half years later on a recent Thursday in January, 10-year-old Delaney was back under the Circus Juventas dome, her bare feet alternating furiously on top of a large green fiberglass globe. The instructor stood next to her with an arm outstretched, should Delaney need to grab it for support.

"Shoulders up, arms out," the instructor said to her. "Straight up, really tall."

Delaney’s right foot trembled a bit and she looked down at it and nearly slipped. The instructor held Delaney’s arms high until she steadied herself again.

"Stand up straight. Stand tall the whole time."

Delaney frowned and continued to watch her feet and in a moment they betrayed her again and skittered across the globe and she leapt to the floor.

"Almost," the instructor said, as Delaney prepared to step back on.

Delaney takes two classes a week at Circus Juventas, a professional circus company and teaching facility — one of the few in the Midwest outside of Chicago — that brands itself, appropriately enough, as a "nontraditional athletic activity."

Months after seeing the circus that first time in 2006, Delaney enrolled in the introductary class, called "Circus Experience." She learned all about everything she had seen that first time, even got to try a few things out — unicycles and tumbling and vaults.

After that first class her roving interests led her away, briefly, to a more traditional athletic activity — gymnastics, which she thought she might like better. She didn’t. Too much formality, too little variation. And so much focus on competition, always trying to be just a little better than the person next to you.

So last year she ran back home to the circus.

Don’t mistake her intentions: Delaney doesn’t dream of one day joining a professional circus (though, she said, it would be a pretty cool job). She’s still a beginner. All of her classes keep her on the ground. And after all, there are a few people teaching at Circus Juventas who aren’t much older than she is.

But she’s committed. If time and circumstance permits, she sees herself taking classes all the way through high school, eventually getting a chance to do the daring things she sees older students doing around her, particularly the Spanish cloud swing (a combination of a trapeze and the Spanish web, which consists of ropes suspended from the ceiling).

"It looks really scary, but it looks really fun," she said. "The trick that really scares me, which I like to watch, you wrap your feet around the rope and then jump off. It’s going to be really hard if I ever do get to that level."

She thought for a second. "But cool," she added.

She just loves the variety, the excitement, the headiness and exoticness of it all.

And the continuing novelty of it, the way people at her school ask her about what she does, how some of them come to see the fall and spring performances. And the way she’s even made friends with some other girls she’s met in her classes, had them over for playdates.

She can’t get enough of the circus, even if it is, well, a balancing act at times.

Her parents, Maria and Brian, trade off taking her on Thursday evenings. Delaney has two siblings, both with their own afterschool activities, so the family’s schedule dictates that she take her circus classes on a single day. Right now she’s taking globes — the large balls performers walk and perform tricks on — at 5 p.m. and contortions isn’t until three hours later, so in between she sits away from the performance floor and works on homework.

Sometimes, she said, she’s so wiped out from the Thursday activities that she can hardly focus Friday at school.  

Still, she loves it.

Of course, it helps that she has one perfectly circus-ready talent: She’s double-jointed in eight places. The kind of person who can clasp their hands behind their back and then pull their arms over their heads without batting an eye.

So while she’s struggling a little in her globes class, she’s doing pretty well in her contortion class. Right now, she’s working on the box:

"That’s where you’re on your elbows and you’re laying down on your stomach and your feet kick over towards your head and your hands grab your ankles. I can almost do it but I can’t do it yet."

All the Circus Juventas students (except for the very beginners) get a chance in May to perform what they’ve learned in their classes. That’s some months away still, so the students are focused on learning the basic tasks before them.

Back at her class that Thursday night, as some children flew past on unicycles and others tried to stand on each other’s shoulders for a human pyramid, as some swung on a trapeze and as others vaulted and tumbled and attempted handstands, Delaney stayed rooted on the globe, working her feet.

She alternated left and right, shuffled quickly to keep the globe moving and her feet steady. After a few minutes her face calmed and she stopped waving her arms for balance and held them straight out.

"Good," the instructor said. And then handed her a hula hoop.

Delaney furrowed her eyebrows and smiled wanly and gave the instructor a ‘Yeah, right’ look, but she held her right arm out and the instructor placed the hula hoop on it.

She turned her right arm a little at first and the hula hoop wobbled. She turned harder and it began to spin around her elbow, slowly at first, then steadily.

Her feet slipped a little, and she paid attention to them, and then the hula hoop fell, so she paid attention to that, and when the hula hoop was spinning again she nearly fell from the globe. But after a few tries, she had her feet shuffling and the hula hoop spinning and she stood up straight with her shoulders up and her arms out.

She smiled for not quite a second, the longest distraction she could afford. Then she returned to her new skill, feet shuffling and hula hoop spinning as the circus carried on around her.