By Lane Page
1:15 PM EDT, May 22, 2013
The circus has come to town!
And it’s the clown, jokes Greg May, who is running the business.
A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College graduate and former member of its circus troupe, May is the clown in question, and the Center Ring Circus School is his own arena.
Raised in Columbia, the Hammond High School alumnus is the son of community pioneers Betty (a swim, dance and theater instructor) and the late Dr. Gerald (a theologian, psychiatrist, author and possessor of a “sense of humor every bit as wacky as his circus clown son”) May. The combination explains a lot.
After a half-dozen years clowning around and instructing kids in the same at the community center in Greenbelt, May has expanded the show in an innocuous-looking office park on Oak Hall Lane, just past the Columbia post office.
But inside is a menagerie of fun. There are circus posters, rainbow mats, giant rubber balls, and gorgeous jewel-hued fabric dangling 17 feet. These are the tools for aspiring jugglers, stilt walkers, unicyclists, plate spinners and trapeze artists.
And it’s here where May says he gets “to play for a living.”
It’s not as though the former professional hasn’t put in his dues, however. When he was in the ring, he points out: “I fell down for a living. … One of my jobs was falling off a 12-foot ladder 13 times a week.”
So, now May and his staff (including his mother) share their talents with children and adults alike through classes in circus arts, aerial arts and gymnastics, along with summer camps and birthday parties.
Circus school is much more than goofing around. There’s value in skills like agility, balance, teamwork, hand-eye coordination, public presentation, creativity and -- let’s not overlook -- how to slip on a banana peel without getting hurt.
“It’s geared to kids, but Greg makes sure that adults get to do activities, too, not just spot their children,” says Dawn Popp of Elkridge, a drama student of Betty May’s back when and now enrolled at Center Ring with her 6-year-old daughter, Maria.
In the acrobatics session they partner up, with kids standing on parents’ shoulders or creating a carousel with adults forming a circle while kids sit on their linked hands.
“It’s good one-on-one time with your child,” adds Popp.
Lisa Losito is not yet ready to try it herself, but her daughter, Juniper, 11, has gone from summer camp to advanced level and the performance team, says the Ellicott City mom as Juniper skillfully twists fabric and feet, posing gracefully.
The art of clowning appeals to all ages -- that’s why May offers classes for kids, teens and adults.
After a couple of months, Howard Community College student K-li Westhaver, clad in a T-shirt proclaiming “BALANCE,” announces, “I never thought I could walk across a tightrope, and now I sort of can!”
Many adult students opt for the Aerial Arts and Fitness program, and here’s one reason why: When May trained to become an aerial arts instructor, he reports, he lost 40 pounds.
“In the beginning, people love the fabric,” May says of the twisting and flowing substance for climbing and posing.
Despite being a tad afraid of heights, Columbia fitness enthusiast Erin Harrison scaled her bright fabric column and accomplished a circus trick known as a “Gazelle” on her very first coupon-inspired visit.
“I had a blast. I’ve come every Saturday since then,” she reports, having added a number of new poses, along with a few fabric burns, to her repertoire.
Of such skills accumulated gradually week by week, in competition only with oneself, asserts May, “as adults we don’t get enough of those incremental victories.”
May also touts the physical benefits of aerial arts. “Inversion therapy,” as he calls it, helped clear up back pain from years of clown stunts.
“Everyone should be upside down at least once a week,” he says.
Here, students are doing sit-ups but don’t even realize it. Nor do reps get boring.
Chiropractor Todd Johnsonbaugh signed on to see if any techniques were adaptable to his Columbia practice.
“Every day patients work on exercises involving awareness of balance and object dexterity,” says the Woodstock resident. Spinning rings on their arms, balancing balls on the wall and using the balance (known as “rolla bolla” at Center Ring) boards is clearly more fun -- and thus more effective -- for adults than being reminded to stand up straight.
Johnsonbaugh will be back, he says, and his 9- and 11-year-olds will attend Center Ring Circus Camp this summer.
BIRTH OF A CLOWN
You’d never believe it to see him in jovial action now, but May claims he was really quite shy.
“It’s one of the reasons I turned to theater,” he says. “I was always more comfortable at a party if I had something to do.”
May’s mother taught him to juggle, and at age 12 he got his first job as a jester at the Renaissance Festival when it was located in Symphony Woods.
Later when he found out about clown college, May remembers his parents as being thrilled and very supportive.
“Many doctor-fathers would probably not be as supportive of their child dropping out of college to join the circus … but my dad and mom were both wholeheartedly behind it,” he acknowledges.
In 1990, 3,500 wannabes applied there; 50 were chosen, and 11 ultimately went out on the road. May was one of them.
While touring with the circus he met his wife, Sheryl, a dancer and elephant rider. Single, they each had a 3-foot-by-6-foot personal space on the circus train. As a couple they got 5 feet by 6 feet. Talk about a marriage penalty!
After a couple of years the pair settled down here. May had finished “regular college” with a biology degree and taught the subject in high school until the showman came down with a case of what’s known in circus lingo as “itchy feet” -- and yearned for “a bigger audience.”
At Center Ring, the clown is now ringmaster. Mission accomplished.
Center Ring Cirucs School’s troupe is slated to perform later this month at the Columbia Festival of the Arts. Center Ring also will provide juggling lessons at the festival. Details are available at CenterRingCircusSchool.com.
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