Hanging high above Sweden, Minnesota circus girls take gold

After six minutes of hanging, dangling and twirling from a triple trapeze and from the limbs of their teammates at heights of 15 to 25 feet, four Minnesota teens were handed a trophy while a Swedish voice made an announcement over the P.A. system.

What this trophy meant, the four girls — two from Southwest Minneapolis — did not know. It could have been a “thanks for coming” trophy or a bronze medal. They were unable to find out because they were in Sweden, participating in circus competition against international acts whose performers, for the most part, didn’t speak a lick of English.

“We’re standing there like, ‘what is this,’” said Kate Cieslowski, an 18-year-old senior at The Blake School and resident of the Kenwood neighborhood. “We didn’t want to celebrate because it could have just been a participation trophy.”

Avery Young, a 17-year-old senior at Southwest High School and Linden Hills resident, said her team began asking people if they understood the announcement, but the ones who spoke Swedish hadn’t heard it.

The girls waited, watching other acts, until someone finally told them they had won the gold medal, besting 35 other acts.

It’s a rare thing for an American youth team to compete in international circus competitions, because circus is not as popular in the United States as it is abroad. Minnesota, in fact, is lucky to have not only an established youth circus organization, but the biggest in the country in Circus Juventas.

Circus Juventas is a 16-year-old nonprofit youth circus in St. Paul that teaches kids acrobatics, aerial techniques, juggling and theatrical skills. Most importantly, said Executive Director Dan Butler, it teaches them life lessons like teamwork, trust, work ethic and dedication.

Butler’s organization, before the late October Circus Ring of Friendship Festival in Norrkoping, Sweden, had sent four acts to international competitions.

“It is something that we’re extraordinarily proud of, that we’ve been invited in the last five years to four international festivals,” Butler said. “All four of them we’ve made it into the final performance but we’ve never won a medal, and not only did we win a medal this year, we won a gold medal.”

The team of four includes Cieslowski, Young, 16-year-old Brigid Fitzgerald of South Minneapolis and 17-year-old Heather Snyder of St. Paul.

All of them have been in circus for at least four years, and Snyder, for example, has been doing it for 10 years. Circus Juventas originally had two triple trapeze teams, but because of some graduations the team combined into one. They’ve been practicing together since May, often for three to five hours a day.

The four girls perform on a triple trapeze. Four ropes hang from a bar 10 feet down to another bar. The apparatus hangs about 15 feet from the ground.

To understand their act is difficult without watching it. At times, the girls lock legs and dangle each other from the apparatus. At other times they flip upside down while hanging onto the ropes. They have to use grace and strength while maintaining smiles. To an outsider, they appear one slip-up away from falling from scary heights.

The girls say it takes a combination of skills that are used in gymnastics, dance, theater and stick-and-ball sports.

But it also takes a tremendous amount of trust and teamwork, the girls said, because at times they are putting your safety in someone else’s hands.

That led the team, including their coach, Sun Yan Hong, to become very close.

Hong, a multiple gold medal winner in several circus acts who started perfuming at age 7 in China, said coaching the Minnesota girls to a gold was the most gratifying experience in her circus career.

“I really put a lot of my feeling into this,” Hong said. “When I did it myself when I was younger I didn’t care nearly as much about it as right now.”

Sadly, the team will break apart after next summer as three of the girls — Cieslowski, Young and Snyder are graduating high school and plan to attend college.

All but Young say they probably won’t pursue a career in circus. Young, however, would love the opportunity to perform in a big national act like Cirque du Soleil.


View a video of the Circus Juventas triple trapeze act in Sweden here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCKqlYxPNw0