Every parent knows that the moment will arrive when their beloved child will become a teenager and turn away. But I had never pictured Gretta turning away in a double loop straight up into the air.

We had traveled to San Diego with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts for the five-day Festival of the American Youth Circus Organization. Four from PSCA were here: Gretta, Mara and Jonas Sells, and Isa Kennedy, whose mother, Shana, runs Circadium, the professional training school associated with PSCA. Their coach Adam Woolley was to conduct some workshops at the warehouse-turned-circus school. Additionally, Bronyn Mazlo had arrived weeks before for a summer intensive program.

Representatives from the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts included (from left) coach Karen Ladd, Gretta Maguire, Mara Sell, coach Adam Woolley, Jonas Sell, Isa Kennedy, Bronyn Mazlo, and parent Shana Kennedy.
Walt Maguire
Representatives from the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts included (from left) coach Karen Ladd, Gretta Maguire, Mara Sell, coach Adam Woolley, Jonas Sell, Isa Kennedy, Bronyn Mazlo, and parent Shana Kennedy.

More than 200 young jugglers, aerialists, unicyclists, acrobats, and clowns gather from all parts of the country every two years in a different location. This is without a doubt an athletic event, but it’s not a competition. Each day is full of workshops; evenings, there is a showcase where schools contribute an act purely for the entertainment of the other students.

Our group was small by comparison. Some had 20 or more kids, plus almost as many coaches and parents. PSCA performed at the most recent festival, two years ago in Trenton, but three of its crew were accepted into a summer program in Vermont, leaving no time to put a new act together.

 Each evening, various groups performed in a showcase exhibition.
Jenna Lowery / AYCO
Each evening, various groups performed in a showcase exhibition.

At this first showcase, our daughter tracked down her friends via text messages and joined them on a mat on the floor at the front. My wife, Cristina, and I found seats in the back. The grown-ups made a few announcements, but the rest of the night was in the hands of the performers.

An hour later, the lights came up, as did the massive warehouse garage door. A cool breeze rushed in as the kids streamed out to the parking lot to make new connections, at least one new name, one new face.

These are the kids who think that ballet is too formal and that football has too many straight lines and that all of it relies too much on gravity.

On the way in the next morning, we approached some families at the front gate. I ask Gretta whether she knew them. “Yes,” was her entire reply, with no eye contact. She hesitated for a second, then greeted one of them with a secret handshake they had invented the night before.

“I really liked your act last night,” Gretta said.

The other girl smiled. “Thanks.”

“I wanted to ask,” Gretta said. “When you did the dive on the lyra and two silks – what’s that move called?”

The smile broadened. “A 360.”

“I’ve never seen that before.”

They went into detail, with a third girl joining in. Three tall girls with ponytails, braces, and training in aerodynamics.

I looked to the girl’s father. “I don’t understand any of that, either,” he said.

The grown-ups

We parents were informally in three groups.

Workshops filled mornings and afternoons.
Jenna Lowery / AYCO
Workshops filled mornings and afternoons.

Some have a circus connection, or grew up in a community where a circus school was available. They can do the moves, but maybe not as smoothly as a few years ago.

Others, like their children, are new to all of this but share in the enthusiasm and might take a few workshops in juggling, or tumbling, or something safer, like cutting out a shadow puppet.

The third are the parents who are baffled by how they got here.

Their interests have been in engineering, perhaps academics or marketing or programming, with some light hiking and chicken-grilling outdoors. They are uncomfortable watching their 13-year-old climb 20 feet up a piece of fabric and then do a controlled fall, and they can only stare when their 8-year-old contorts into a human funnel cake.

Cristina and I are in this group.

The brush-off

Cristina has a sensible attitude to these festival trips and always plans some sightseeing. I tend to linger around the festival. I talk to the other parents about how far they’ve traveled, how far their kid wants to go with circus, how to fold a trapeze to fit into the trunk of a Camry.

I watch fathers walk with young children, holding hands, and try to remember whether my daughter and I ever held hands that much. I think so? But she had just finished middle school and would soon turn 14. Our morning walks from the hotel to the festival grew quieter with each pace until our parting at the entrance, where she quickly and silently glanced to make sure that I wasn’t following too closely.

By the third day, Gretta openly wondered whether I might want to revisit the San Diego Zoo, perhaps get a membership.

I asked what she thought of the showcase the night before. We agreed on which act was our favorite. I threw in that I thought the ending was a little weak, which returned a withering stare I felt burning into my neck before I saw it. “Their curtain call was great!” I added, but too late.

Cristina texted me to join her in parental exile.

Cristina was having less of a problem than I with our daughter’s newfound independence. I found trouble navigating the between aspect – is she a maturing young woman, or still a child? Am I now just Dad-splaining?

Here in San Diego, Gretta and I understood the boundaries. With circus, I can clearly offer no advice on how to do a 360, but we can discuss the quality of somebody else’s.

The festival days started at 9 a.m. and finished around 12 hours later. We ate breakfast at the hotel, where other circus groups gathered for a meeting. We walked the 10 blocks to the circus center, quietly going over her workshop schedule. Some drivers seemed genuinely startled to see people walking.

Even after Gretta had dismissed me, I always lingered for a bit before leaving, and on some days I returned in the afternoon, just to check in. Cristina and I attended the showcases each evening; then the three of us walked back to the hotel as Gretta filled us in on the highlights of the day, or at least the ones we were permitted to know.

The closing-night ceremony was brief. No one was really listening until ice cream line and dance party popped up in the final sentence. The hall plunged into disco darkness, all soft pulsing dots of colored lights and hard pulsing beams of bass notes. Circus kids are great dancers except, possibly, a few aerialists who aren’t used to having their feet on the ground.

As I watched, I recalled lunch the day before. I was drowning my sorrows in a variety platter of five street tacos when my wife looked up from her enchilada and said, “This is a great trip.”

I stared.

“Half the trip we’ve been together as a family, and the other half she gets to be with her friends.”

She was right, of course. Gretta wasn’t pulling away from us.

I just had to admit there was more for her now than hearing my views on tacos versus burritos.

Philadelphia School of Circus Arts: phillycircus.com

American Youth Circus Organization: americanyouthcircus.org