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Melrose 12-year-old performs in youth circus

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Melrose Free Press on August 29, 2017 and was written by Conor Powers-Smith. 

Eva Lou Rhinelander performs her specialty at Circus Smirkus

Eva Lou Rhinelander performs her specialty at Circus Smirkus

Childhood may have changed dramatically in recent generations, but some things remain the same, among them the cherished dream of running away to join the circus. As 12-year-old Melrose resident Eva Lou Rhinelander discovered last year, that goal is not only within reach, but within easy driving distance.

Rhinelander just wrapped up her second summer with Circus Smirkus, the Greensboro, Vt.-based youth circus that attracts child performers from across the country. She and a friend were the youngest performers in both 2016 and 2017, touring throughout New England and honing their skills toward possible careers under the big top.

“It’s definitely something unique,” Rhinelander said of life on the road, and the experience of being thrown together with kids from as far away as California and Washington State. “We’re all very close friends by the end of the tour, but we don’t really know each other very well before we’re put on tour.”

Circus Smirkus performers stay with families who volunteer to shelter and feed them during their short stays in various towns and cities, known as home stays.

Rhinelander and 3 fellow performers use their contortion skills to portray an octopus

Rhinelander and 3 fellow performers use their contortion skills to portray an octopus

“Usually it’s families with kids, and a lot of times the kids are really interested in meeting the troupers,” said Eva Lou’s mom, Genevieve Martineau. “A lot of times these families who host the troupers, they’ll do it year after year, and it becomes a family tradition.”

It’s something of a moveable sleepover, with strangers quickly becoming close friends.

“Home stays are really fun,” Rhinelander said. “Sometimes we see them in the audience and we get to connect with them more.”

Between travel, practice, and performing two shows a day, circus life can be grueling.

“We’re on a four-meal schedule,” said Rhinelander. “We wake up and eat breakfast, and we leave and go to the site, where the tent is. Then we train a little bit for like an hour, and we have rehearsals that are scheduled, or we just train on our own. Then there’s another meal about an hour and a half before the show, then we put our makeup on and get ready, then we do warm-ups for about half an hour. When we’re all ready, about five minutes before the show we have a group handshake. Then the show starts. When the show’s over we talk to the audience, then we get out of costume.”

After the first show, the kids go through the cycle again. Even when the second show is finished, their day isn’t done.

“At the end of the show we then clean up the bleachers,” said Rhinelander. “We also have individual jobs.” Rhinelander’s responsibilities this summer included doing dishes and taking out trash. Only after the work is done can the kids return to their home stays for their fourth meal.

Rhinelander was already skilled in hula hooping when she joined the circus last year, but has added many skills since

Rhinelander was already skilled in hula hooping when she joined the circus last year, but has added many skills since

One good thing about the busy schedule is that it keeps kids from getting too homesick.

“We’re just having a lot of fun, and I don’t really think about that,” Rhinelander said. “But it is tiring.”

It’s a lot of work for something that wasn’t even on Rhinelander’s radar until shortly before she joined up.

“We didn’t really know anything about it,” said Martineau. “Somebody in Melrose told us about the camp, because they offer a Circus Smirkus camp.”

Rhinelander was eager to try the camp, but circus organizers were impressed with the skills she already had; she was an accomplished hula hooper, and had recently taken up rhythmic gymnastics.

“Eva had been hula hooping on her own, and performing, you know, in the school variety show and things like that,” said Martineau. “We sent in a video audition, and they asked a lot of questions, and invited her to the live audition, which is a weekend affair.”

The in-person audition included skills Rhinelander had never tried before, but she had enough raw talent that organizers urged her to use the months before the tour began to practice more of the circus arts.

“Obviously they saw something in her,” said Martineau. “She already had a lot of natural flexibility, and rhythmic is a really good foundation for circus.”

Rhinelander spent her first summer with Circus Smirkus clowning, but her repertoire was considerably expanded this year, thanks to a year-round regimen of training in arts like handstanding and contortion.

“Eva trains about 20 hours a week in various disciplines that will help her in circus,” Martineau said. “She’s going to continue with those skills, because those are skills it takes years to perfect.”

When next summer rolls around, Rhinelander expects to be in her third year with the circus, making use of a new skill she’s already begun to practice: tightrope walking.

“It makes me excited a lot, but also, when I’m on top of the wire like that, it’s scary, but it’s manageable,” Rhinelander said.

Her mother experiences a similar reaction, though she has faith in her daughter’s abilities, and the training provided by the circus.

“They learn how to fall and things like that,” said Martineau. “The high wire is about six feet off the ground, so it’s not super high. It’s high enough to hurt yourself. But the times Eva has gotten hurt, she hasn’t been doing something physical. You can get hurt doing anything.”

Rhinelander is enamored with circus life, and says a career in the circus may very well be in her future. Martineau is more reserved, but supportive of whatever choice her daughter eventually makes.

“Well, she is only in seventh grade, so we’ll see where her path leads her,” she said.

The all-youth cast of Vermont-based Circus Smirkus

The all-youth cast of Vermont-based Circus Smirkus