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Circus Juventas celebrates 30 years under the big top

Rachel Butler Norris’ parents didn’t have a typical job when she was a kid. When she was school-aged, her parents started an afterschool circus class in their community.

“That was my first experience was just going with them to the Hillcrest Recreation Center, and we had like three nights a week we did classes,” she said.

Now, 30 years and thousands of students later, she is continuing her parents legacy as Artistic Director of Circus Juventas. 

Started in 1994 by Dan and Betty Butler as an afterschool program called Circus of the Star at Hillcrest Recreation Center in Highland Park, it has grown to become the largest performing arts youth circus in North America, serving over 1,500 students per year.

Butler Norris, along with Executive Director Rob Dawson, are relatively new to the job, both coming on board about nine months ago when the Butler’s retired. But neither are new to the circus or the organization.

“Rachel’s been every step of the way for the last 30 years,” said Dawson. “And then I sat next to Dan, my office was right next to his, kind of learning through osmosis.”

Dawson, who has worked as a circus performer and stuntman at Universal Studios and Cirque du Soleil, said he and Dan Butler had discussed him coming on board as far back as 2017, but that the pandemic really pushed him to think about a career change.

“You know, working for professional circuses, your schedule is horrible. You’re working until 11:00 at night, every weekend, every holiday, missing your kids grow up.” he said. “Once pandemic was coming more to a close and things were going to get back to normal, I didn’t want to go back to that lifestyle.”

Dawson said there was a position open as the head rigger and arena manager available, and he called the Butlers and said he was ready to make the change. 

Nine months later, the pair are wrapping up their second set of shows in their new roles, capping off a string of 15 sold-out student performances that was capped with their 30th anniversary celebration on May 5, featuring over 700 students and 1500 costumes over the two-week run.

“Our biggest show had 281 kids, so it’s just a massive undertaking,” Butler Norris said. “And then you see it, and it’s like, how can 281 kids pull off that after just one rehearsal? They each get one rehearsal and they’ve never done it before. Half of them haven’t done it in that space.” 

Circus Juventas over the years

October 1994 – Dan and Betty Butler launch Circus of the Star and Hillcrest Recreation Center

August 1995 – First performance of Circus of the Star students at Highland Fest

July 2001 – Grand Opening of the current big top location

September 2008 – Circus Juventas became the largest performing arts youth circus in North America.

Left: Some of the first students with Circus of the Star. Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas.

The spring show is mostly for students, their families and friends. 

“We don’t even advertise this one to the public,” Dawson said. 

Yet, they had more than 6500 people through their doors for the shows.

While the spring show is an opportunity for all of their students to perform, their holiday and summer shows are a much more serious affair.

“We think like a year in advance,” said Butler Norris. “The kids graduate, so we’re always going to have a team, a group of however many seniors that graduate and most of them leave.” 

They start the audition process for the summer show each June, and build around the students who make it to the team.

While many of the students move on, Circus Juventas offers professional classes for those aspiring to work in the circus arts.

“Three of our students from last year have all gone on to work on different cruise ships,” Dawson said. “Rachel’s brother Danny was in the program a couple of years ago. He’s working for Ringling Brothers.”

Dawson said that, while they train the students on the professional tract in circus arts, they also prepare them for finding jobs down the line.

“Some of the big shows, you’re doing 478 shows a year. It’s a grind,” he said.  You need to be prepared for that physically and mentally. But also you only get your limited time with the casting director. As soon as you walk in the door you gotta make an impression. It’s really teaching them how to prepare yourself best for that experience.”

Now that the pair has wrapped up their spring performances, it is already on to their summer show.

“It is a jungle adventure story,” said Butler Norris. “It’s an original story that we had written for this show. But it’s a kind of a mash up or inspiration from The Jungle Book, Tarzan and Swiss Family Robinson.”

Tickets for the show, Jangala, go on sale June 10.

They are already well into developing their winter show and planning for their fall fundraiser as well, which raises $250,000 for the scholarship fund.

All of that is a far cry form their first classes at Hillcrest and their first performance at Highland Fest back in 1995.

Despite the scale or their shows and number of students, for both Dawson and Butler Norris, it’s a family affair. 

For Dawson, he gets to work with his wife as a coach. 

But for Butler Norris, this has long been her family’s legacy.

“All my siblings were in it at one point or another” said Butler Norris. “My youngest brother, Danny, is currently traveling around with the new Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Show and as the catcher on the Flying Trapeze. Which is cool because that’s what my dad did when he was in the circus.”

Learn more at circusjuventas.org

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