Click. Cricket. Creaaaaak. The 28-foot aluminum ladder groans with each rung 11-year-old Jennifer Durso climbs. She doesn’t look down. She doesn’t see the hundreds of eyes watching her every step; doesn’t feel the blinking red lights from camera-armed parents. But, she can hear the creaks. The sound alone would keep most from attempting the climb, but Jennifer seems fearless. She steps with confidence; her heart set on flawless flight.
On a narrow platform at the top, she chalks her hands and waits for the trapeze swing to be brought from its rest. Below her, a net waits six feet from the ground — just in case.
Two weeks ago, Jennifer stared in disbelief at the trapeze contraption. Its wires and cables webbed throughout the 55-foot-high big top at the East County’s Girl Scouts Camp Honi Honta, and Tito Gaona, one of the famous Flying Gaonas brothers, told Jennifer she would fly. Not only that, but hanging by her knees more than 30 feet in the air, she would also link arms with a performer on the another trapeze. She would release her legs and soar over the circus in the arms of the second trapeze artist.
Today, Jennifer grips the trapeze bar and glances at her trick partner swinging across from her. Gaona waits for the timing and braces the safety harness ropes attached to Jennifer’s waist.
“Lista!” he shouts at Jennifer. “Ready!”
Jennifer inches her body farther to the edge of the platform, half of both feet hanging over the edge.
Jennifer launches her body into the open air one foot in front of her. The trapeze whisks her as a human pendulum over the heads of parents, grandparents and fellow Girl Scouts. Although the drop feels like the initial descent of a roller coaster, she shrugs off the tickling sensation, swings her body up and kicks her legs over the bar. Now, hanging by her knees, she hears Gaona’s voice boom again. She grips the arms of her catcher, releases her legs.
Wild applause, proud screams and Gaona’s larger-than-life grin erupt to celebrate Jennifer’s first public trapeze trick — a perfectly executed knee hang catch. Jennifer dismounts from the net, gracefully bows, her face beaming.
Last Saturday, Jennifer and nearly 90 Girl Scouts performed the East County’s first-ever Girl Scout Flying Fantasy Circus. But, unlike most circus performers, the girls didn’t perform with a lifetime of expertise and several family generations of history in the circus.
They had a two-week crash-course summer camp.
End of the wire
Four days before the performance, Miranda Scott, of Mote Ranch, wobbles on the tightrope.
“Just balance,” a coach’s voice calls out to her. “Try to keep the wire quiet. Don’t rush the end.”
Miranda’s eyes don’t waver with the rope and focus solidly on the pole waiting for her. Foot-lengths at a time, she edges her way across the rope and finally eases herself onto the other side. Then suddenly, she inches her way back onto the rope. Backwards.
Palm-Aire’s Natalie Carpenter, a fellow tightrope walker, bites her lip as Miranda crosses the halfway point. Natalie’s bout with balance also includes juggling three scarves. Finally, the rope bests Miranda and tosses her off.
“You have to have so much concentration,” Natalie says about tightrope walking. “You just have to look at the end of the wire and focus.”
Just a few feet away, 8-year-old Savannah Simmons has a completely different task consuming her attention. Suspended upside-down on a vertical rope called the Spanish Web, Savannah steadies one foot on the rope and pushes her body outward. She spreads her arms like wings as her coach twirls the rope. She looks like a figure skater floating in mid-air.
“Beautiful!” Savannah’s coach yells from the ground. “OK, lay your leg back. Back! OK, come up, pull, pull. Drop the leg. Drop it! Hang on! Scooch one more. Scooch! Beautiful!”
Miranda, Natalie, Savannah and the rest of the Girls Scouts Flying Fantasy Circus ate, slept and drank circus for two weeks. Camping in Honi Hanta cabins, the girls, from as far away as France, whittled themselves from a disjointed and shy collection of individuals into a family of supportive, talented and driven performers.
Gaona watches as Savannah snakes her way down the Spanish Web with steady precision. Once she reaches the ground, Gaona’s eyes widen, and he grins, nodding his head in approval.
“This is the new generation of circus performers,” Gaona says. “This is so great for these girls. They’re growing up strong and learning to open up and to have trust. And, this gives them goals to set for themselves, and they accomplish something.
“Like I always say,” he continues, grinning. “Don’t just see the circus, be the circus.”
And on Saturday, that’s just what they were.
Always a place
Outside the tent, a typical summer storm pelted the air and a parking lot full of minivans and modest sedans. The dirt road outside Camp Honi Hanta had turned into a mud soup, and the gray had settled in to ruin weekend outdoor activities. But inside the tent, perfection was an understatement.
One-by-one, tightrope walkers edged their way along the wire. Patient, concentrated and focused, their ankles and outstretched arms calmed the finicky rope to the amazement of parents sitting a few feet away. Behind a red curtain, the next performers waited, eagerly, to strut their stuff.
As each group completed its act, a sigh of relief coupled with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment filled the big top. Nearly every kink and hitch exposed in Friday’s dress rehearsal had been suppressed, and the girls left their crowd of loved ones stunned.
“This is a great program,” says Kathleen O’Leary, director of youth for Girl Scouts of Gulfcoast Florida. “And, it doesn’t matter if what they’re abilities are — there’s always a place for you in the circus. I love it. This has exceeded all my expectations.”
Immortal big top
For most of the show, Gaona remained reclusive behind his own handheld video camera. After two grueling weeks of nonstop training, encouragement and excitement, he basked in pride, not for himself but for the girls wearing the flashy makeup, sequined costumes and safety harnesses.
Finally, for the shows trapeze finale, Gaona surfaced. For the girls’ ultimate accomplishment, he would hold the pulley safety rope for each girl as they launched themselves from the platform towering above.
“I have to say now that I was amazed,” Gaona says. “When I first told them they would fly, the 90 girls said, ‘No way.’ Now, they all want to do it.”
Every girl chosen to perform the knee hang catch sailed through the air and landed squarely and securely into the arms waiting across the tent. Every girl dismounted from the net to meet Gaona’s beaming face. He stepped back and called for applause as his pony-tailed proteges bowed to the buzzing crowd.
At the show’s end, each girl took their leap from the platform, soaring high above their parents, displaying their newfound fearlessness — and flight.
“Every child has that fantasy of being in the circus,” Gaona says. "Everyone wants to fly, be a clown, walk on a tight rope. That’s why I call it the Fantasy Flying Circus. As long as there are children in the world, the circus will never die.”