Last month, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus rolled up its tents for the last time. On the same night, a different kind of circus, founded by an ex-Ringling acrobat 88 years ago, ended its season too. But the Redlands based Great “Y” circus will be back next year, a triumph for a troupe that bills itself as “The Oldest Community Circus in the World.”
In the lobby of the YMCA in Redlands California, stands outside the Roy Coble Memorial Gym, reading from a a plaque on the wall. "For forty years, he was always there when any when any of his YMCA kids needed him... He befriended the friendless and the lonely and showed them how to find companionship." The man on the memorial plaque sounds too good to be true. But Roy Coble was real. An ex-circus acrobat and aerialist, Coble ended up running the YMCA in Redlands California at the height of the Great Depression. There, He hatched an eccentric dream: To combine his circus skills with the Y’s mandate of exercise and community. Jenna Lowery is the 2017 director of the Great “Y”, aka the Great All American Youth Circus, the performing troupe for children Coble founded in 1929.
“We have a humongous program,” says Lowery. Lowery joined the Great “Y” Circus as a 7 year old unicyclist. "My cousin Colin actually started juggling here. And I fell in love with how cool that was, and how cool HE was doing it." That childish impulse morphed into a calling. “It’s so hard to put into words. But being a part of a circus community—the supporting of one another physically, actually lifting them up into the acrobatic pyramids, being their actual base—creates this really visceral response biologically. "You are reinforcing trust and you’re reinforcing those feelings of support, and it's reciprocated, both emotionally and physically.” Jenna never met Roy Coble, but she knows his family, some of whom are still with the show, 88 years on. “From what I’ve heard, he sounds like he was a really stellar dude. He started doing clowning and acrobatics as a Wednesday night boy’s activity. And it grew ever since then.” The growth of the Great “Y” Circus is obvious when the massive troupe assembles in the Roy Coble Gym to prepare for a show.
There are 350 young performers, plus 50 adult trainers and a small army of show crew. Visible grace notes are everywhere. Hugs and laughter. Teenagers, spinning like human hubcaps inside life-sized rings called German Wheels. Grown-ups teach children juggling moves, or rehearse for rapt kids on the Rolla Bolla, a skateboard-sized teeter-totter perched on a cylinder as big as a human thigh. “All the trainers are volunteers, so none of us get paid," says Assistant Trainer Tim Caldwell. "We have to sign on for a nine month process." Caldwell has been with working with kids at the Great “Y” Circus for fifteen years. “They learn to come out here without worrying if they’re going to win a first place medal, or win the game. You don’t have to defeat anybody to feel good about yourself. Every one of them does the best they can, and that’s good enough.” The PA sounds.
Director Lowery calls the troupe to order for an untraditional pep talk. "You're doing an excellent job--keep it up," Lowery says. “Make sure that you take time—before you’re onstage, after you’re onstage—to take deep breaths. Because as awesome as the season is, it goes by really quickly. And I think it’s something we should remember to savor.” Guest speaker and Juggling Trainer Damon Needleman reads out an invocation, written his wife Samita. It’s a cross between a prayer and a statement of purpose. “Connections," Needleman says. "As humans we crave connections. A sense of belonging to someone or something. It lets others know what village has accepted us into their fold. “There is no village more powerful for my family than the Circus…” The troupe cheers.
And the Great “Y” is a REAL circus. Here’s a partial list of acts the children have mastered, supplied by Selma, Evander and Olivia Burgess—three members of the troupe: "There’s wire, there’s trapeze," says Evander. "Ribbons, Lear and Hammock," adds Olivia. Evander: "Rolling globes…" Olivia: "German Wheel…" Evander: "Rolla Bolla…" And last but not least, seven year old Selma, who says, "I do swinging ladders and unicycle." As the youngest, Selma is seven, microphone shy. Asked, "What was it like being in the circus with your Mom?," she responds cautiously. "It was cool," she says slowly, and adds after a pause, "I guess." Evander is a thoughtful twelve year old. He gravitates toward support positions, behind the scenes of the show. “I feel proud," Evander says. "Because my helping them is actually working.” And then there’s Olivia. At thirteen, she’s very much the oldest child, remarkably self-assured at an awkward age. Asked what the circus has taught her, she's decisive and firm. "Trust," she says. "I’ve learned to trust people. Because when they’re swinging you in the air you have to trust them." Olivia does Ribbon—an aerialist spinning high above the gymnasium floor on long silk in a graceful dance with risk. She bats away a compliment like Serena Williams batting away a slow serve. “It’s not natural ability—at all. Just like when people say their kids were born smart? They practice, they study, every day. They work on it 24/7.”
Taken together, the Burgess kids are like three Polaroids of childhood development—Selma taking cautious first steps, Evander finding himself, and Olivia, coming into her strength. Their mom, Paula Akompong, credits the Great “Y” Circus. “In the circus," Akompong says, "the kids learn perseverance. Because they don’t wake up one day and start doing those tricks. Failure is a part of the learning process. In fact, the best part is to see someone not manage a trick and still compose themselves and smile. “Seein’ them onstage, I hate to say this, but even though there are 400 and somethin’ performers, all I see is my child," Akompong adds, laughing guiltily. "And I see them PERFORMIN’. Doin’ these amazin’ tricks! And then I forget all those nights I was rushing’ them here, snappin’ at them, trying’ to get them ready. I forget all that. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh! Look at them! Look at what they’re doin’! This is unbelievable! "I can't imagine our lives without it."
Back in the Roy Coble Gym, the Great “Y” Circus forms up into a gym-spanning circle. "The circle is a symbol of our interconnectivity, and our unity before a show," Lowery says. The troupe has one last pre-show ritual to perform. Emilie Gleisberg, the troupe’s second in command, explains. “Every single night that we perform, we all circle up, we hold hands, and we say, ‘Good, Safe, Fast, Show,’ three times — “ The troupe chants out their cheer, with a deafening roar. "And then we clap and we cheer," Gleisberg says, "and we go off behind stage to get dressed and get ready for show." Like Jenna Lowery, Emilie has been with the Great “Y” since early childhood. But this year has a special resonance for her. Not all the kids know yet, but after this show closes, Jenna Lowery will be moving on to pursue a career as a photographer. So next year, it’s Emilie’s show. “It is… a dream come true," Gleisberg says, through tears. "And I tell… WHOO! I tell everybody that. “I cannot believe that I am going to be able to put on a show of my own, in the place where I grew up, with everybody I love, including my father and my mother, [who] is part of the show. “You know, the circus, we’re here for each other, we’re a family. We make it happen. And we never let anybody fail.”