Into the ring

Staff ~ The Telegram
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Published on January 12, 2009

Four year-old Kathleen Anderson and Wonderbolt ringmaster Beni Malone juggle scarves. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on January 12, 2009

Four-year-old Billy Cochrane shows his concentration as he tries to roll a juggling ball up and down his arms. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on January 12, 2009

Circus/Clown Master Beni Malone tells those watching that balance is one of the key things in trying to make the "Devil Sticks" work in their spinning formation. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on January 12, 2009

Published on January 12, 2009

Wonderbolt Circus artist Lauren Smyth shows her concentration as she shows her skills in ball juggling to those at the open house Saturday. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on January 12, 2009

Seven-year-old Percy White has himself some fun in playing with a telescopic geodisic dome. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on January 12, 2009

Published on January 12, 2009

Circus artist Dashi Malone shows great balance while spinning plates. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on January 12, 2009

Ten-year-old Jessica Freake appears to be getting the knack of the balancing act of how to get the rhythm going in spinning the "Devil Sticks." - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on January 12, 2009

Telegram reporter Tara Mullowney tests her skills on the silk curtain. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on January 12, 2009

Telegram reporter Tara Mullowney gets some help balancing from unicyclist Dave Cox. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on January 12, 2009

Lauren Slaney, 5, tries her hand at the diablo during a Wonderbolt Circus open house Saturday. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Wonderbolt Circus shares some tricks of the trade

One of the best things about being a journalist, is that I learn something new just about every day. From bits of history and the workings of politics, to the fact that the spelling of Sheshatshiu, the Innu community in Labrador, changes, depending on whether or not you are in it at the time of writing, every day is a learning process.
Over the weekend, my fabulous career as a journalist taught me - first hand, no less - that riding a unicycle is definitely not as easy as it looks.
After apparently being voted by my editors the Telegram reporter least likely to end up in a body bag, I was asked to take part in an open-house circus class held by Wonderbolt Circus Saturday morning.
I had one condition: only if I could learn how to climb the silk curtains. Wonderbolt ringmaster and head clown Beni Malone's daughter, Anahareo White-Malone, had been a friend of mine throughout junior high and high school, and is now a professional circus artist in Berlin, specializing in the silk, aerial hoop, and fixed trapeze. With the help of Facebook, I regularly see pictures of her beautiful lithe form in gorgeous costumes, suspended gracefully in the air, silk wrapped artfully around her legs.
Saturday's class was busy. Children of all ages (as the circus clichÉ goes) had gathered at Wonderbolt's downtown location to meet Malone and some of his Wonderbolt instructors, and to learn how to do some circus tricks. There were hula hoops, coloured scarves and balls to juggle, devil sticks, diablos, and plastic plates ready to be spun on sticks.
Also, hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room, was the long, red silk.
Malone has been a professional clown since 1976, having been interested in theatre and acting, but also drawn to the physical aspect of circus arts. In 1977, he formed Clownburst circus, which was renamed Wonderbolt when it began touring the province four years later. Plans for the upcoming summer include the annual circus show here in St. John's, and a show involving aboriginal artists - including hoop dancers and drummers - from Labrador.
Malone and his instructors have been holding classes in schools for the past 15 or 20 years, and started offering circus camps about five years ago. Now that Wonderbolt has its own venue for teaching, Malone holds circus arts classes for students from the age of six to adults. Skills taught include clowning, acrobatics, juggling, stilt-walking, hula-hooping, and everything in between.
"Everyone finds their specialty, and it's usually something they're good at early on," Malone explained to me. "You can also specialize in more than one thing - for instance, you could do a major in plate-spinning, and a minor in the hula hoop."
A lot of people who don't necessarily like to take part in sports blossom when it comes to the physical activity included in circus arts, Malone said.
"A lot of people come in here and say, 'How did they learn to do that? I would never have the nerve to do that.' Well, you know, there is a bit of magic to it," he told Saturday's students. "We teach people step by step, or even half-step by half-step. Two or three weeks later, they're doing things they never thought they'd be able to do.
"Tenacity is just as good as practice. And both together are amazing."
After Malone's introduction, we watched as instructor Lauren Smyth demonstrated juggling, first with scarves, then with balls, starting with one, and ending with five. Next, her brother, Jeff, showed us how to use the diablo - a rubber hourglass-shaped object that is juggled on a piece of sting suspended between two sticks.
We watched Malone demonstrate how to use devil sticks - two hand sticks used to juggle a centre stick, tapping it back and forth and spinning it - and how to spin plates, before his nephew, Dashi Malone, showed us some acrobatics. I watched, amazed, as Dashi proceeded to take a running start, then ran up a wall before somersaulting over his back in the air, and landing on his feet.
Then, it was our turn to try and put the instruction we had been given to use. With the help of instructors, various stations were set up, and we were able to take turns trying the different tricks. I practiced juggling with my new little friend, four-year-old Kathleen Anderson (who immediately decided the pink scarves worked better for her than any other colour), and tried the diablos.
At 10 years old, I, like my mother before me, had been the hula-hoop girl in the backyard circus productions I did with my neighbourhood friends - while my little sister was known as the fearless grasshopper tamer - but was afraid to try it again Saturday, since I hadn't picked one up in almost 20 years. Malone assured me the thick, rubber-wrapped Wonderbolt hula-hoops are easier to manoeuvre than the thin, straw-like plastic ones bought in stores, and he was right - I was able to keep the hoop spinning around my waist.
When unicyclist Dave Cox saw me eyeing his skills as he rode around the classroom, he invited me over to try it.
Cox, 22, has been performing with Wonderbolt for the past two years. He taught himself how to ride a unicycle, he told me, after seeing a guy riding one down the street.
"I thought it was really cool. I bought (a unicycle) at a bike shop, and I practiced in my driveway until I got it," he said.
Cox rides his purple unicycle around town, even in the snow, and is used to people honking and waving at him. It's easier than riding a bike, he said, and drivers tend to give him more room.
I had to ask - had he ever hurt himself?
"No, not really. I find it's not as dangerous as riding a bike, because when you fall, there's no frame to get in the way. I did break this tooth though," he said, pointing to one of his front teeth. "I did a face plant once, right on the concrete."
Right. Not what I wanted to hear. With his encouragement, though - and the gracious use of his shoulders and back as my steadying tools - I got up on the unicycle … and promptly fell off.
A few minutes and a half-dozen tries later, I was up again, and this time, still leaning on Cox, rode forward then backward a few inches. It was much harder than riding a two-wheeler, that's for sure - one tip of balance, and the unicycle flies out from under you.
At long last, Malone asked if I'd like to try climbing the silk. Dashi came over to assist and demonstrated, using his arms alone to climb to the ceiling.
With Dashi's instruction and help, I wrapped the silk around one ankle, then pulled myself up, using my other ankle to secure the fabric around my leg. For a few brief seconds, I was suspended on the curtain, one arm outstretched, feeling exactly how Anahareo must feel when she's performing in Berlin or Geneva or Osaka, high above the crowd.
Except I wasn't nearly as strong or skilled or graceful.
And I was only about two feet off the ground.
Oh well. I guess I can always register for Malone's classes, which begin Jan. 17 and last 10 weeks. At the end, each student will perform in a mini-Wonderbolt show, and maybe by then, I'll have some talent to speak of.
I think, however, I'll stick with the hula hoop.
More information on Wonderbolt Circus' circus classes is available at www.wonderbolt.ca, by e-mailing info@wonderbolt.ca, or by calling 728-1819.

Tbm@thetelegram.com

Geographic location: Labrador, Berlin, St. John's Geneva Osaka

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