February 2, 2012

circus mojo

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                                     circus shoozez

In 1979, when I was 12 years old, I had a moment of profound revelation, which would change the course of my life forever: I was not going to be an NBA basketball player, as I had imagined, because, contrary to my own self-image at the time, I actually really sucked at basketball.  I mean, I reeeeellly sucked. It took getting chopped from the Fighting Yellow Jackets, Jr. High team, on the first day of tryouts, for me to understand this.  Larry Bird was going to be able to keep his job and I was going to have to become rock 'n roll star, instead.  Still waiting for that one, by the way.

photo by steve metz                                             young lady/happy circus person
My point is, there are very few times in our lives when we know exactly what that small, dark shape on the horizon actually is.  Certitude and intuition, be damned.  We can shape it a bit, but at the end of the day, we must follow the path placed before us by the convergence of all of the disconnected, yet interdependent moments of our lives.  So, I imagine that Paul M., founder and Chief Circusarian (I invented  that word, at this very moment) at Circus Mojo, a circus school in Ludlow, Ky., did not imagine himself to be a circus performer, while studying as a theater major in college.

"I kind of did it as a joke at first," he tells me of his first audition with Ringling Bros..  "I was a sophomore at CCM, and I thought it would be fun to audition.  I wanted a backup plan, too, in case theater didn't work out for me."

Despite missing the mark on that first audition, the backup plan would become Plan A, when, the following year, among, literally thousands of auditioning performers, Paul was selected for one of only ten available positions in the traveling show.  Statistically, that's more prestigious than Ivy League.  Paul hit the road and joined the proverbial circus.

He would later finish his degree at CCM, but that experience with Ringling Bros., would forge a path for him, and, transitively, for hundreds of kids whom he and his organization have since helped.  The art of circus had gotten into his blood enough for him to want to teach it.  He began by offering circus performing classes at prestigious east coast schools while working as a part-time soap opera actor in NYC.  You may have seen him on Days of Our Lives.  No, I'm not kidding, but thank you for asking.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                             paul m./circus mojo

Early on in his teachings, Paul noticed something important: something that would solidify the idea of offering circus skills to the public as an ardent passion...the passion of which Circus Mojo would later be born.  "All people need a sense of achievement in their lives, and circus offers that," he tells me.  "You come here and you may not know how to juggle or walk on a giant ball, and then, suddenly, you can juggle or walk on a giant ball."  With the right amount of effort, the reward is quick.  It's also measurable in the intent smiles on the faces of the participants of Circus Mojo.  Moments of "oooh I got this...I get it" abound.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                                       ring juggler

I was lucky enough to witness this effect when I joined Paul and his students at Circus Mojo one Saturday morning.  There were kids (and even a few adults) from all walks of life.  Some had probably been spending too much time with their PlayStations.  Others, sadly, had even spent some time in detention centers.  But none of that mattered when they joined together on the floor of Circus Mojo.  The varied experiences and backgrounds of the kids were somehow washed away and instead, there was a commonality and a communion, to their effort, their learning, and the joy of discovery.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                          happy circus people

We are all born with natural strengths and deficits.  One of the things Paul likes to point out is that learning circus skills fortifies us exactly where we need to be fortified.  The kid who can pick up juggling in 2 minutes, but who hasn't yet understood teamwork, gets to help others and experience the nurturing and growth of a group.  The kid who joined Mensa at the age of seven, but who can't hold a conversation gets to be the same as everyone as else for awhile.  There is a true sense of community there, which doesn't seem coerced.  It's just naturally born of a shared, positive experience.  The most dedicated among them have even gotten to perform in Germany.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                     young man/happy circus person

Personally, I know that I could have used something like Circus Mojo when I was that grief-stricken kid who had just gotten cut from the b-ball team.  I was shy, awkward, and as thin as a slip of paper.  I imagine the twelve-year-old me stumbling through the door to Circus Mojo.  I'm immediately put at ease because there is fun music playing and Paul M. is wearing crazy shoes and cracking jokes right and left.  Moments later, we begin a group juggling activity.  A circle forms.  I'm nervous, but for some reason, not as nervous as I would be if this were gym class or a book report.  Paul M. is in the middle.  The bowling pins start flying.  What? Did that just happen?  Did Paul just drop one?  Maybe he did it on purpose.  Kids are smiling, clapping for each other, dancing in place to the music.  It seems like they feel the opposite of pressure.  I smile too.  Oops...that girl across me from me dropped one.  At least I won't be the first kid to do so when it's my turn.  Wait, one said anything mean to her.  That's odd.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                  juggling while walking high wire
Soon, I'm next in line.  I'm nervous as hell, but I'm happy too.  Now, the green pin is flying at me.  I catch it and manage to toss it back.  A split second later, the orange.  Yes!  But, the red one bounces off of my hands, into my shoulder, and onto the floor.  I can feel a familiar heat build in my face.  I turn to run after the fallen pin.  I listen, but, to my surprise the sounds of the room do not change, as I expect them too.  There is still music and clapping.  By the time I turn around, Paul M. has moved on to the next kid.  No one seems to have even noticed my blunder.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                     young lady/happy circus person

After the group juggling, Paul splits us into pairs.  This is horrible.  I'm paired with a girl who must be older than I am: maybe she's even in high school.  She's cute.  The braces on my teeth feel like they're growing.  We stand about 10 feet apart.  We're holding glowing plastic rings.  We start throwing them.  I'm dropping them all over the place.  It's a nightmare.  I feel like vomiting.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                  building a human tower

It doesn't take long for Paul to notice my struggle.  We take a break.  Paul stands directly in front of me and looks me dead in the eye.  I can't even see the girl.  He's telling me exactly what to to change my rhythm, my motion, my focus, my gaze, the way I grasp the ring.  He's telling it like it's if I just do what he's told me to do, it will just work.  He steps back a few paces and starts tossing rings at me.  I catch, throw, catch, throw, catch, throw, drop.  We keep going.  Soon, I'm keeping up.  Twenty tosses in a row!  Now, thirty!  Next, the girl steps back in.  I barely notice because I want to get back to  it.  We're counting out loud together.  We hit 50 and I hear her say "yes!"  She drops number 72.  She runs towards me and puts her arm around my shoulder.  Wait.  Did that just happen?  Yep, it really did.  Thanks to Circus Mojo.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                     young man/happy circus person

Circus Mojo will be holding an open house and performance as part of Macy's Arts Sampler 2012:

Circus Mojo: map

Circus Mojo: website


  1. Thank you so much for this delightful article and the amazing photos that go with it. You captured the true spirit of what Mojo does every day, whether they get the recognition or support that they deserve, or not. Dr. Jenny O'Donnell

  2. Thanks for the wonderfully sincere and creative description of my very favorite clown who has such a great talent for changing lives for the better. Carol Author Miller

  3. Paul what a great article! You have done so much for so many people including Catholic Residential Services. We as a an organization are so proud of what you have turned "circus" into, and we hope that you continue to inspire people to go above and beyond what they believe they can achieve :)

  4. I think this was a really good blog. It has very good detail about how circus mojo works! Thanks PAAAUULL!

  5. This is awesome, thank you so much for coming over and being part of our 'troupe' for one day. You described exactly how I felt the first time I came to the class, it made me smile! by the way...I'm from Mexico City and I had a laugh when I read "Mensa" ..I was now explained what it means but in spanish it's something like: dumb girl! :P

  6. The Blogs were awesome This is great on Different levels and by the way we blew it away at st James white oak school bye!

  7. way cool. enjoyed the read and the photos...looks like so much fun! I want to go!

  8. Great work........