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.
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.
"Lift and flick, lift and flick, Eleana," he tells 10-year-old Eleana Downs-Perez, who's struggling a bit with her scarf juggling "That's right. Does that feel better than yesterday?" (It's only Tuesday, and he knows almost every camper's name.)
As Cameron Orner, 12, of Arnold, manages to keep three balls aloft, Rosman tells him to breathe more often and make his throws upward from below, as though bringing the balls up through his nose.
"Ninety percent of juggling is the throw," he says. "The other 30 is the catch." Ba-da-bump.
Some of his thoughts have the ring of larger truth.
You're going to goof up, he tells the class, no matter how good you get. When that happens, a good clown owns up to his or her error. If you move to center stage, take a big bow and say "ta-daa!" You'll always bring down the house.
But clowning is also for keeps. "Are you the kind of person who tries spinning plates three times, then quits? If so, this isn't the camp for you. It might take 80 tries," he says. "It might take 200. Anything worth doing is worth working at."
Sleight of hand
Is that unfriendly, coming from a clown? Scary? The kids don't seem think so. They crowd around Rosman when they can, showing him what they've learned.
"I'm doing the diablos," says Noah Schulman, 9, of Annapolis, rolling the traditional Chinese tops across a string he's holding between two sticks. He wanders off, continuing the game on his own.
"I love the show-off stuff," Rosman says. "That's how I know they're getting better."
This is the second year he has offered his camp during Kids in College, an Anne Arundel Community College program aimed at children through the age of 18.
A few of this year's students took the 2010 version of Clown Camp, but most didn't, and very few had tried any kind of circus gag.
During a break Tuesday, four friends set aside their lunchboxes to share what they've learned in a day and a half. What they say would make a good instructional video.
Taryn Crone of Millersville, 9, hasn't had much success with juggling yet, but she's an emerging expert on spinning plates. She grabs a thin stick, balances one of the specialized plates on top, and with a jerk of the wrist, starts it twirling.
It's easy to keep it spinning as long as the stick is on the outer edge, she says, but to get it to the center, you must flick your wrist to snap the plate into position, a move she hasn't mastered.
"But look, I can balance [the stick] on one hand, and I can move it around behind my back," she says, demonstrating just that. "And I'm working on balancing it on my chin."
Allison Downs-Perez, 7, says a key to walking the tightrope is keeping your arms out, and Sydney Feurer, 10, of Pasadena, has no trouble getting to the heart of circus clowning — which, as Rosman often explains, differs sharply from the slightly more gimmicky stuff you're likely to see in a Fourth of July parade, where clowns often entertain by handing out cornball buttons or balloon animals.
"This is comedy — like miming, but with words," Sydney says. "Someone does something to you, and you react. We've learned all these clown emotions — happy, sad, confused, scared, surprised. People think it's hilarious."
But it wouldn't be a demo without some old-fashioned slapstick.
"Clowning is the art of beating people up without actually hurting them," says Heather Casto, 8, of Pasadena, quoting Rosman. Taryn and Sydney get up to show what she means.
The friends stand face-to-face, eyeing each other in mock anger. Taryn draws a hand back and aims a blow at Sydney's cheek.
There's a loud "whap!" Sydney recoils with an expression of shock.
It's all clowning, of course. As the girls demonstrate, Taryn stopped her hand inches shy of Sydney's face.
Sydney, the "victim," created the "whap!" sound by clapping her hands at the moment of "impact."
"It's about getting your timing right," Taryn says, sounding every inch the latter-day Charlie Chaplin. "If you get it right, no one will see the trick. Everyone laughs. Don't you think that's cool?"
The more, the merrier
In the course of his career, Rosman has clowned for two circuses (Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers and Cirque Voila). He has juggled clubs, walked on rolling globes and strolled the tightrope on cruise ships, in Vegas and Europe, and on Leno and Letterman.
Locally, he does his annual "Squire on a Wire" routine at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, trots out his DumbWaiters act ("the world's most idiotic servers") for private parties and pedals his 9-foot-high unicycle at sites like the Inner Harbor.
One thing he has discovered over the years is that clowning's more fun in groups, which is why he formed his first teaching camp six years ago and now works with a team of teachers.
This week's group includes fellow clowning veteran Mark Lohr of Frederick; Lohr's daughters, Gena, 13, and Grace, 12; a stilt-walker named Cybele Pomeroy; and Rosman's own children, Sophia, 14, and Ethan, 12, both of whom are spry like their dad.
Rosman waxes rhapsodic about each artist, but above all, he seems a proud father. Few girls in the world can juggle or ride the rolo bolo (a plank on a cylinder) like Sophia, he says, and Ethan started juggling so young "he's doing things I'll never be able to do."
At one point Tuesday, the confident Ethan displays his latest trick: a spectacular juggling display involving five pin-shaped clubs.
He keeps them going for eight or nine seconds, a profusion of intricate motions, before missing one catch and letting them fall.
"I break a lot of fingernails" practicing that, Ethan says.
Michael Rosman is glad the campers have at least seen he's human.
"You're not that far away" from his level of skill, he cries.
No one garners more attention than Lohr, a burly man with a perpetual smile and a resounding laugh. Rosman proclaims him "the loudest clown in the world," and Lohr likes that idea.
When the time comes to split the group in two, he sprints to the far side of the gym, a gaggle of 7- and 8-year-olds screaming in his wake.
"Last one there's a rotten egg!" he roars, and the scene is bedlam.
Over there, they put some of Lohr's theories into effect. He calls himself a "Shakespearean clown" — one who acts out a character in situations — and he likes to cite the Rule of Three, a principle that says jokes, skits and stories work best when they come in three parts: a beginning, middle and end.
This group practiced pratfalls earlier. Now they divide into smaller groups to write sketches. After 15 minutes, they return to act them out.
In one, a girl buys a folding chair. She offers it to the others at auction. One wins, but the others aren't ready to concede defeat.
In turn, each plops down in the chair, gets shoved off, does a comic clown roll and returns to bicker some more. It becomes a tapestry of motion.
In the end, the bidders knock each other to the floor. The seller shrugs, picks up the chair and leaves. The others make faces of surprise, then exit in a "clown chase." The laughs are loud and long.
Taking a bow
The campers were to hone their skills Wednesday, enjoy a "pie-in-the-face day" Thursday and put on their own circus Friday, with each doing a solo using his or her best skill.
They may not have been assembling the Greatest Show on Earth, but judging by their progress the first two days, they were putting together something special.
"Above all, it's empowering to each person to get a moment in the spotlight," Rosman said.
Even Tuesday's class offered a preview. At one point, Rosman clapped his hands and drew everyone together in a circle.
"We're going to do something fun," he said.
"Fun? At Clown Camp?!" Lohr asked, his eyebrows rising.
The boss "volunteered" three students to display what they'd learned.
One was Cameron Orner, the juggler from Arnold. He stepped to center stage, took a deep breath and picked up three beanbags. He flipped one in the air, then two, then got three up and moving. He kept them aloft for five, six, then seven seconds.
Then his hands started moving faster, the pattern dissolved, and the balls fell to the floor. But he didn't let his error linger.
He waited a beat, put on a big smile, and took an exaggerated bow. "Ta-daaa!" he cried. And Circus Camp 2011 burst into wild applause.