Plate spinning

Ava Moore, 9, spins a plate at Circus Camp. (Baltimore Sun photo by Joe Soriero / August 10, 2011)

It's late on a steamy August morning. Forty scholars and their lecturer have been at their studies for a couple of hours.

One of the more challenging courses in the summer program at Anne Arundel Community College is already well under way.

But there are no desks or chalkboard. The classroom is a gym, and six young people are walking the floor on stilts. Eight more spin plates on sticks, and one weaves his way through the commotion on a bicycle the size of a ringmaster's hat.

Welcome to Circus Camp, a five-day, 40-hour expedition through the big-top arts in which comedy is king, the teacher is a clown and the students — county children between the ages of 7 and 14 — will be able to conquer the course material only if they can manage not to take themselves too seriously.

"Clowning is difficult — we know that — but in this camp, no one says, 'I can't,'" says Michael Rosman, the energetic performing clown who doubles as inspiration and director. "We say, 'You can't — yet.' Give yourself a chance, don't quit when you fall short, and you can learn more than you expect."

On this, the second day of the course, which was happening this past week, the kids are taking that advice. Some 8-year-olds work on their rear-end kicks, three older kids struggle across a tiny high wire, and two jugglers drop their beanbags, pick them up and start all over again.

In four days, the class will perform a circus all its own, each boy and girl taking a star turn before a roomful of parents. Will they polish their skills in time? Step right up, a lively Rosman seems to say, and watch their death-defying try.

Rimshots

Bantering with students, serving up pointers and reeling off an almost endless stream of bad jokes, Rosman doesn't merely educate; he fills the class with mirth as an ocean breeze might billow a sail.

Someone mentions there are twins in the class.

"Which ones are they?" a visitor asks.

"The ones that look alike," Rosman says, and the only thing missing is the ba-da-bump.

But grab him by the sleeve and start talking about his craft, and it's clear that underneath the vaudevillian veneer, the 44-year-old sees clowning as serious business.

Not too surprising, given where he comes from.

He grew up in Baltimore, preparing himself for a career about as funny as a lost carnival ticket. He earned a degree in finance from the University of Delaware and seemed positioned for a move to Wall Street.

But he had fallen for magic, juggling and comedy at 17, and he never forgot that passion. He headed for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and he looks back as often as a trapeze artist looks down.

To those in the business, the Ringling Bros. college — a well-regarded program that teaches "character development, athletics, [and] physical and verbal comedy," according to its website — codifies "the ancient and honorable art of clowning."

Rosman in camp is like a sideshow hybrid: half entertainer, half professor.

He spotlights the little things — the kinds of details that, when put together, can make a tough challenge look as easy as whipped-cream pie.