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Big Top, Little Town

Disney’s all-new Dumbo flew high this spring, Cirque du Soleil takes to the ice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this month, and we’re still humming tunes from The Greatest Showman. But in one small Indiana town, the circus is not just pop culture—it’s a way of life.

Peru, Indiana, is the “Circus Capital of the World.” For that, this town of 11,000 can thank Benjamin Wallace, a native son whose Great World Menageries and International Circus opened to a sell-out Peru crowd in early 1884. It became one of the country’s most successful shows, returning to Wallace’s winter quarters in Peru each year. That property eventually landed in the possession of John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers. Retired circus pros started the Circus City Festival there in 1959, giving young people a chance to perform summer shows under the big top.

They let kids do this?! The Peru Amateur Circus involves some seriously thrilling acts—twisting on aerial silks high off the ground, prancing through high-wire routines, juggling fire—all performed by the youth of Miami County.

Welcome, one and all. Tryouts are competitive and practice sessions rigorous, but no Miami County child is turned away—as long as a would-be performer meets attendance guidelines, he or she is in the show. Kiddie clowns begin at age 5, other performers start at age 7, and everyone’s eligible through age 21. (Jealous adults can get in on the fun by joining the clown troupe or Peru Circus Band.) With a participation fee of just $35, the program stands out from the several dozen other youth circuses across the nation because of how accessible it is to every kid, says Mark Hall, president of the town’s Circus City Festival, Inc.

Performers start young in acts like gymnastics and bicycling. Many move on to more advanced routines, such as the flying trapeze or Spanish web, an aerial act on a swinging rope—like Zendaya did in The Greatest Showman, the 2017 movie musical about P.T. Barnum. Take Justin Yoo, one of four circus siblings. He began performing at age 7; started juggling fire and knives at 13; and now, at 18, leads the juggling troupe. His mom, Diana Yoo, is a circus alum herself.

Nerves of steel required. The high wire is one of the most dangerous and rewarding acts. Tender-footed tightrope walkers cross on stilts, bicycles, and even in a seven-person pyramid inspired by the Flying Wallendas, the famous daredevil family act. Kamon Blong, 15, has been walking the tightrope since age 9 and was part of the world’s youngest six-person pyramid in 2016. He admits that reaching the other side of the rope is thrilling, yes—“but you still have more shows to go,” he adds matter-of-factly. His younger sister, Cassandra, 10, gets anxious climbing up to the wire, but loves the excitement of performing.

Behind every great act is a great trainer. In Kamon’s case, that’s often his mother, Alexandria Blong, who started at the Peru Amateur Circus at the age of 7 and went on to become a high-wire professional. She practices with Kamon and Cassandra at home, teaching them nuances of balance and movement on the wire.

At least 50 kids have gone on to join the pros. Others have scooped up awards at the Première Rampe, an international circus competition held each year in Monte Carlo.

“May all your days be circus days.” Peru’s motto invites everyone to experience the delight of the circus. At this year’s event, see the show and the big parade, take a spin on carnival rides, and visit candy butchers (a nostalgic circus term for vendors who would cut taffy to order) on the town square. Step right up!

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