Aerial feats

Betty and Dan Butler, co-founders of Circus Juventas of St. Paul, will take their show, including 30 students, to Washington, D.C. this month

Big hearts under the Big Top: Betty and Dan Butler continue to gain national attention for their work at Circus Juventas in St. Paul. Photo by Bill Raab /
Big hearts under the Big Top: Betty and Dan Butler continue to gain national attention for their work at Circus Juventas in St. Paul. Photo by Bill Raab /

If you happen to be in Washington, D.C. in early July, be sure to visit the National Mall for the 50th-annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

You’ll be able to see a hometown favorite — the performers of St. Paul’s own Circus Juventas — showcasing their local artistry on a national stage.

This year’s festival theme is circus arts, and Circus Juventas (after an intensive two-year vetting process) was selected to be one of the participants.

Sabrina Lynn Motley, director of the festival, said Circus Juventas, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, is widely known as one of the most prominent community-based youth circus organizations in the U.S.

“It’s become a national model of ongoing and evolving efforts to unite community life through values that lie at the very heart of circus arts — cooperation, trust and mutual respect,” she said.

Trapeze and trampolines

A few weeks before they travel to the nation’s capital with 30 students and six coaches, the founders of Circus Juventas, Betty and Dan Butler, can be found where they almost always are on a weekday afternoon — under the Big Top at their St. Paul headquarters.

They discuss the performance they’ll present at the festival, an abridged version of their 2016 sold-out show Wonderland, which takes audiences on a high-flying, topsy-turvy ride through Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (and its sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass).

The show features acrobatics, trapeze, dance, flying silks, trampolines and other circus arts. When not on stage, students at the festival will present educational demonstrations and participate in workshops led by circus professionals.

It’s a thrilling prospect for everyone in this St. Paul-based “circus family,” and a long way from the Butlers’ humble beginnings in 1994 when they operated out of Hillcrest Recreation Center in Highland Park as Circus of the Star (a reference to the North Star State of Minnesota).

“Of all the stages Circus Juventas has had the benefit of performing on — including international locations in Italy, Germany and Sweden — this is our greatest honor,” Dan Butler said.

In the midst of preparations for the D.C. trip, the Butlers are also getting ready for their school’s annual public summer show — Nordrsaga, focused on Norse mythology — featuring their most advanced students’ work.

The Butlers, both 59, still found time to sit down for a few moments to reflect on all that has led them to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Betty and Dan Butler met at Sailor Circus in Florida in the 1970s and went on to establish Circus Juventas in St. Paul in 1994.

The early days

Dan and Betty met as teenagers at the Sailor Circus in Sarasota, Fla. He was a catcher on the flying trapeze, and she was an aerialist on the cloud swing.

They began dating at age 16 and together went on to perform at Florida State University’s Flying High Circus, which still exists today in Tallahassee, Fla.

They married at age 22. Dan Butler became a successful real estate broker in Atlanta. The couple hit a few roadblocks in those early years, and decided to move to Minnesota for a cultural change, and to allow Dan Butler a short stay at Hazelden.

The Butlers still stayed connected to their circus roots, however, including attending Sailor Circus reunions in Florida. After one reunion in April 1994, Betty Butler wondered, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something in Minnesota?”

And so they did, gradually growing Circus Juventas to create the largest performing arts youth circus school the U.S. (if not North America), with more than 2,000 students learning every year under a $2 million, 20,000-square-foot, vinyl-domed Big Top, completed after a major fund-raising campaign in 2001.

Dan and Betty Butler founded their circus training and performance company in 1994 and today serve more than 2,000 students a year in their 20,000-square-foot facility in St. Paul. / Photo by Robb Long

The Butlers’ five children — Rachel, 31, Sarah, 28, Zach, 26, Caleb, 19, and Danny, 15 — have all performed with circus.

Today Rachel works as a lead instructor and artistic department lead under Betty Butler’s direction. Sarah has a full-time teaching position in the Minneapolis school district, but stays involved by coaching on Saturdays. Danny is performing in the summer show.

Longtime St. Paul residents, the Butlers moved to Mendota Heights as their family grew — when, as Betty Butler put it, “We realized we needed four bedrooms.”

In July, Circus Juventas performers will present a shorter version of their 2016 show Wonderland, featuring acrobatics, trapeze, dance, flying silks and other circus arts, at the 50th-annual, 10-day Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Photo by Dan Norman

Inspiration and support

The Butlers are pioneers of a unique contemporary youth circus arts school model that’s heavily influenced by Cirque du Soleil.

An international performance company based in Canada, Cirque du Soleil blends traditional circus feats to create artistic performances, incorporating narrative story lines, world music, custom costumes and character-driven performances.

“We’re often called a youth version of Cirque du Soleil, which is really an honor, because that organization has been inspirational to us,” Betty Butler said. “We always have a strong, usually historical, narrative to each of our shows, and we have a depth of production values that is atypical for a youth circus.”

Students practice the splits on the high wire at Circus Juventas, which has a domed vinyl and aluminum-frame roof, plus bleachers to seat 940 people for periodic performances. Photo by Dan Norman

That includes “quasi-professional level” lighting, sets and music and unique, contemporary-style circus arts with a global flair.

Over the years, the Butlers have gathered an impressive number of supporters, including former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, who once offered high praise for Circus Juventas teachers: “They take ordinary kids and teach them to do extraordinary things.”

Students as young as 3 can take classes at Circus Juventas in St. Paul, which offers performances in the spring and summer. This student is juggling with a circus prop called a diabolo. Photo by Dan Norman

International influences

Though only a small minority of students who age out of the program ever work professionally in a circus, Circus Juventas students have gone on to work with Bello Nock, Big Apple Circus, Cirque Du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, Ringling Brothers and Wallenda Enterprises.

“Of course many of our students go on to college, and we encourage that,” Betty Butler said. “Only about 10 to 15 percent pursue a circus career. But this is a solid place to be if you want to pursue that dream. We were the one of the first circus schools to a hire international coaching staff, and we have an integrated pedagogy of theater and dance.”

One of the international coaches Betty Butler mentions is Chimgee Haltarhuu, a Mongolian native who formerly performed with the Mongolian State Circus and Ringling Brothers.

“I always think of Betty and Dan as terrific parents,” Haltarhuu said. “They have made it a priority of the program to be inclusive to all children in the community, and the training teaches self-discipline and confidence, along with amazing circus skills.”

Betty and Dan Butler, who have been in circus performance arts for much of their adult lives, are still active in teaching classes to a variety of ages groups at Circus Juventas. Photo by Jake Armour

Many former students are now performing all over the world, Haltarhuu said, adding: “And it’s all thanks to Betty and Dan. I am happy and proud to be here.”

Another coach, Mostapha Hassouni, who was born in Morocco, performed in Europe as an acrobat for Ringling Brothers and then performed in Las Vegas. While visiting a friend who was working for Circus Juventas, he was impressed by the lifestyle he found in the Twin Cities — and by the Circus Juventas programming, geared toward ages 3 to 21.

After being approached by the Butlers to teach acrobatics, he moved to the Twin Cities and became a coach.

“My son was turning 5, and I thought it was time to live somewhere new,” he said, adding: “These are good people. They work so hard for the kids, and they have built something amazing. The circus is like a family, and they are very much a family because the circus is their life.”

The Butlers have found a heart and a home in the world of the circus at their Circus Juventas school in St. Paul. Photo by Robb Long

Energy and activity

Nancy Hall, a data systems specialist at Circus Juventas, loves working in an environment where she can see a trapeze swinging overhead.

She’s also a bit dazzled by the world-class instructors.

“When I see those coaches working with students as young as toddler-aged, I’m so impressed,” she said. “I feel that Betty and Dan are still continuing to grow this idea, and God knows what they could build, given enough time and resources. The shows are stunning, the quality of the work is amazing, and it’s all because of these two people and their dedication — to safety and quality.”

As the afternoon moves into early evening, students arrive and the Big Top takes on a feeling of highly focused energy and activity.

A trapeze swings rhythmically across the vast space, guided by a young woman dressed in a black leotard and tights. Below her, a squadron of unicyclists is circling the ring as an instructor calls out encouragement and guidance.

Las Vegas

A second home

In an upstairs office, surrounded by scenic renderings of previous shows, Sofie Clough, 15, stands alert and still while being measured for a troll costume for the summer show.

Clough, who lives in Southwest Minneapolis and attends Washburn High School, has spent five years as a Circus Juventas student, in classes like Acrobatics 1000 (“Acro 1000”), Handstands, Spanish Web, Bungee Trapeze, Cube, Trampoline, Team Acro and Flying Trapeze Basics.

She also participates in a Circus Juventas work-study program.

“This is my second home,” she said. “Without Circus Juventas, I can’t imagine what I would be doing.”

Clough said one of the most notable things about the Butlers is they always seem to have smiles on their faces.

Photo by Jake Armour

One of Dan Butler’s often-repeated phrases, “May all your days be circus days,” especially resonates with her: “Whenever he says that, I think of how it captures all of what Circus Juventas is about — fun, exhilarating, death-defying acts you want to think about and do every day.”

Even though many of these activities carry with them a potential for danger, the Butlers maintain a strict “safety-first” focus.

Jessie Seehof Carlson, a 43-year-old yoga teacher who lives in South Minneapolis, has three children, Isabella, 8, Leo, 6 and Delia, 4, who have been taking Circus Juventas classes for three years.

“I’ve been in many meetings during which Dan is clear with the kids about his safety priorities,” she said. “I’ve also come to appreciate how the staff and instructors praise students for things like enjoying themselves or rebounding from a ‘mistake.’ They hold the kids accountable, and I appreciate the way that gives kids their own power and sense of self-control.”

Photo by Jake Armour

Ideal retirement

The Butlers are working on a gradual leadership transition — and hope to retire within five to seven years. But they point to a circus ethos of remaining highly active for many years.

“Our role models were training well into their 80s,” Dan Butler said. “One of our mentors, Willie Edelston, was with the Flying Hartzels. He’s 94 now, drives a red sports car and has a girlfriend.”

Dan Butler dreams of spending time on a beach in Florida and having plenty of time for daily kite surfing.

Betty Butler talks about buying a pop-up trailer and circumnavigating the globe.

“I’m a traveler at heart,” she said. “I’d love to visit all the youth circuses on the planet.”

Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.