A class of clowns

They arrive with disheveled hair, mismatched socks, and crumbs in their pockets. They’re hyped, they’re psyched and ready to juggle whatever comes at them. Moments after they wave goodbye to Mom and Dad, they have their shoes off and are circled up and stretching out.

Giggles break out in between toe-touches and knee-bends. The teacher flashes a look of warning, then a smile. There’s no clowning around here. Save it for clown class.

Monday and Thursday mornings mean kiddie chaos at the Clinton residence of Larry Dobson. There are shoes everywhere, kids swinging from the rafters and kids bounding around outside. Looking around you’d think it was a circus. To Dobson’s delight, it’s a pint-sized circus in the making.

At this academy of the circus arts, Dobson, along with his partner Gabi Schoening and a number of guest instructors teach stilt walking, trapeze, acrobatics, trampoline, unicycle, tight rope walking, clowning, juggling, balloon art and other tricks of the circus trade. The kids are taught to clown around, seriously, and soar to new heights.

“They love it,” Dobson said. “The world is so serious right now that we need to get back to things like the circus.”

It’s been a dream in the making since Dobson himself was a child growing in Lake Forest Park and his father first placed him up on a pair of wooden stilts at the age of 6.

Ever since he could remember, Dobson has loved the circus. He’s seen more circuses than he can count, with Barnum and Bailey’s as his favorite, and has always wanted a circus to call his own.

“It’s an exuberant celebration of life in an artistic, bold, awesome way,” he said. “To create a circus, a circle of performers who stretch their minds and bodies to create beauty is inspiring.”

Dobson — also known as the Stilt Man — has been entertaining for over three decades. In his stilts he soars at almost 11 feet, an added 5 feet on his almost 6-foot frame. He’s become a staple act at fairs, festivals and parades across the region and is famous for his towering strolls in the Maxwelton Fourth of July parade, which he has participated in since 1971.

He’s a self-taught engineer who has a degree in English, and began his work in science as a research chemist. The circus is a no-brainer way to harness kids energy, Dobson said, and you don’t have to be an engineer to figure that out.

In his circus arts classes a round of tumbling with forward rolls, side rolls, and double rolls turns into a mess of laughter.

When a goof-ball session with Deano the Clown, AKA Dean Pettrich, ends, the kids scramble for their shoes and head outdoors for the stilts and giant swing or they scramble upstairs to be first in line for the trapeze.

“You should see kids’ faces when they put on stilts and cwan pat their parents on the head,” Dobson said.

Gabi Schoening’s children, Michael, 13, Raphael, 11, and Samira, 8, have been teetering around on stilts for three years. As they walk around Dobson’s property, swiftly passing kids and covering terrain that even the flat-footed would find difficult, they look like old pros.

“Anyone could do it too if they practice,” Raphael said with a shrug.

On the trapeze the kids learn moves called the bird’s nest, pretty lady, bat hang and catcher’s lock. In between pull-ups, twirl downs, and knee hangs they take bites of peanut butter sandwiches. They climb and twirl on aerial fabric. They’re awkward and a little short-limbed at times, but have a blast.

“The circus arts allow kids to build their coordination, self-awareness, self-confidence and just have fun,” said aerial arts teacher Emily Czerowonka. “For them to be able to do some of these things on the trapeze so quickly is amazing.”

Czerowonka was a stay-at-home mom who needed to get out of the house when she saw a high flying trapeze and aerial fabric performance by Wise Fool, New Mexico in 2000.

“It was so beautiful and elegant,” said Czerowonka, a former gymnast.

Immediately after the performance, she asked Wise Fool members if they could teach her the aerial ropes. She spent three years straight studying trapeze and one year on aerial fabric. She began teaching kids to swing on the trapeze and continued until she moved to Whidbey.

Later this summer she will be an instructor at Whidbey Island Center for the Art’s theater camps for kids, and will also teach a woman’s trapeze class at WICA.

“These are classes where even adults get to express a part of themselves they don’t normally expose,” Czerowonka said.

Jennifer Fuentes of Oak Harbor read about the circus arts class and thought it would be the perfect fit for her daredevil son Domnick, age 9, who’s into juggling, acrobatics, balloon tying and the contortion arts.

“I told him once that if he was born in the Renaissance age he would have been a jester,” she said. “I could have sent him to any other camp where they learn crafts and popscicle stick art, but this just fits his personality.”

Later this year, Dobson, along with his instructors, students and members of the local circus community hope to make the circus come alive on South Whidbey with a public performance. Dobson wants people to come out of the woodwork for the effort. Anyone with a zany talent could find his or her niche in the circus. Ladies and gentleman, young and old, from musicians to the flexible — the ring is open.

“This could be a circus for everyone,” Dobson said.

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