River Falls student finds his niche performing under the Big Top

By Beth Cedarholm
Posted 6/29/23

Aidan Bowman practices Russian bar this June (Aidan is the porter on left).

Aidan Bowman (also known as “Aidan BB”) has been told that he was a clumsy little kid. By the time he was …

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River Falls student finds his niche performing under the Big Top


Aidan Bowman practices Russian bar this June (Aidan is the porter on left).

Aidan Bowman (also known as “Aidan BB”) has been told that he was a clumsy little kid. By the time he was two-and-a-half, his frequent falls had resulted in facial stitches on several occasions. “My parents realized that I was going to keep injuring myself if they didn’t do something to fix it,” said the almost-15-yea- old, who is an incoming sophomore at River Falls High School-–and much more graceful than he was during his toddler years.

His mother, Mel, recollects that by Aidan’s third trip to the emergency room, she and husband, Chad, realized their son needed a physical outlet. Friends had told them about St. Paul’s Circus Juventas, the largest youth performing circus arts school in North America, and they signed up Aidan for a beginning class.

“Here I am, almost 13 years later, and I’m still doing it,” said Aidan.

These days Aidan rehearses six days a week, for a weekly total of 18 hours, leaving little time for much else. Aidan plays French horn in the high school band, and he also plays the cello. He helps out at home – doing laundry, yard work, and cooking (he recently mastered salmon), and during the pandemic, he did some woodworking in the family’s shop. But most of his time away from school is devoted to Circus Juventas.

Aidan doesn’t remember his beginning years at Circus Juventas as a 2-year-old. He is, however, familiar with the story of his first spring show performance, when he sported a white sailor costume. He and his fellow preschoolers were backstage with crayons to keep them quiet and busy until it was their time to perform, and all the children ended up with crayon marks staining their once pristine sailor suits. His first memory of his circus training was jumping on a mini vault – a tiny, slanted trampoline – and being too small to bend the springs.

He said there was no “aha” moment when he realized the circus was for him. It was more of a gradual understanding that he enjoyed what he was doing and that he wanted to continue.

This summer, Aidan is busy preparing for one of the highlights on the Circus Juventas calendar: the summer show, which features the school’s advanced students. This year’s summer show, “Excalibur,” boasts a medieval King Arthurian-theme, with chivalrous knights, jousting, a dragon, and even an archer who will release a fire-lit bow and arrow with her feet. In the production, Aidan will entertain audiences with performances on the teeterboard, Russian bar, and as part of a two-person horse puppet in a theatrical jousting scene. (It’s undetermined at this point if he will be the front of the horse or the rear.) This is the first year that Aidan will be performing in the summer show.

The Russian bar, one of Aidan’s specialties, involves a gymnastics-style beam that is held by two porters, while an acrobat performs on the beam. As a porter, Aidan’s role is to keep the bar under the gymnast’s feet, and to help to provide the power to propel the gymnast – or flyer – into the air. In the teeterboard, which resembles a playground seesaw, acrobats are propelled into the air when another performer jumps onto the opposite end. Aidan’s usual role in this routine is to act as a base, catching the acrobat who is propelled into the air. Aidan is also currently involved with hand-to-hand, in which he also serves as a base.

“In hand-to-hand,” said Aidan, “I throw the other person around. They go off into a different position, and we do catch-and-release tricks.”

Aidan’s parents say their son was never really interested in traditional sports. He tried gymnastics, but Mel said the environment wasn’t very welcoming. He tried swimming, which he enjoyed, but he didn’t have the competitive edge to fit in.

That’s one of the great things about circus performance, said Aidan’s father, Chad.

“You’re not going against another team. Everyone’s helping everyone, and everyone’s working at getting better.”

He adds that it’s easy for students to find something that they want to do in circus performance arts, because there are so many options.

“You can pick something new to do and progress, and if you really like it, you can continue to progress to a higher level. If you decide you don’t like it, you can try something totally different,” he said.

He adds that, unlike a sport like gymnastics, which demands a certain body type, there is no “circus cookie cutter body.”

Mel said that while Aidan is talented, genetics are definitely an asset for her son. Aidan was able to start the German wheel (two large metal wheels connected with horizontal bars, like an acrobatic human-hamster wheel) a year earlier than most kids, because of his height. (One must be big enough to fit in it). She adds that Aidan gave up his German wheel class to specialize in other areas, and also to make room for another student to pursue this act. 

“Aidan is a 14-year-old boy who is 5’10”. You can work hard, but you may not be big enough to do the tasks. Aidan always knew he wanted to do these things, and he eventually got big enough to do them,” Mel said.

During the pandemic, Aidan spent many hours lifting weights and working out. She shows a photo of pre-pandemic Aidan, and the transformation from chubby pre-teen into lean, muscular athlete, is marked. Now, with his strength and height, Aidan is a perfect match for hand-to-hand, teeterboard, and Russian bar routines.

Rob Dawson, a Circus Juventas coach, manager, and director, whose experience includes 21 years of performing and coaching with Cirque du Soleil, echoes Chad’s praise of the Circus Juventas program.

“It’s a huge self-confidence booster and a great athletic experience for youth. Being on stage is hard. I see the transformation from being super shy on the first day of class to seeing them performing in front of an audience of 1,000. It’s such a different way of building that confidence than traditional sports,” he said.

Dawson, who has been on staff at Circus Juventas for two-and-a-half years, praises Aidan’s progress “as an acrobat, as a partner, and as a friend to other students. Just to see his personality grow has been great, because he was really an introvert. To see him break out of his shell and build confidence within the group and on stage has been great.”

Aidan’s involvement in Circus Juventas is a family affair for the Bowmans. Parents play an integral role, volunteering on many levels, from set-building and painting, to serving as ushers, spotlighters, and ticket-scanners at performances. Not only are one or both of Aidan’s parents at the center six nights a week for his practices, but they also help out volunteering on weekends. “We’re here all the time,” said Mel. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Mel praises the inclusivity of Circus Juventas and the friendly community atmosphere.

Mel admits that her son’s involvement at Circus Juventas has involved financial sacrifice for the family. She said that in the early years, the Bowmans saved money so that Aidan could take his first class as a toddler, but because they didn’t have enough money to pay for his second class, which would have allowed him to take part in the spring show, Aidan missed that performance. Her father-in-law came to the rescue to pay for Aidan’s summer sessions. Shortly thereafter, Mel said she found a better-paying job that allowed Aidan to continue his circus performance education. She said that Aidan is now a scholarship student, which gives him a discount on multiple classes.

In March 2021, Aidan suffered a devastating setback. While on the trampoline, he attempted a trick and landed with his legs lopsided. One leg took on more weight than the other, resulting in a severe fracture. Aidan had two steel rods implanted into his leg, and he was out of practice for six months. As he recuperated, he enrolled in a theater class at Circus Juventas, the only class he was physically able to take with his injury—and something he had not been interested in previously. He also volunteered to help paint the set and he assisted with spotlights – just to keep involved.

Even after sustaining an injury, Aidan insists he never feels like he is in danger, although he jokingly said that perhaps the flyers he is catching do.

“They may be thinking ‘We don’t know if we trust you.’ But we catch them, and everything is fine. We pride ourselves in the fact that we don’t like to drop our flyers, and we rarely do,” he said.

Aidan finds it difficult naming his favorite event at Circus Juventas, but he has come to especially enjoy the Russian bar, where he can showcase the talents of someone else.

“I like to focus on one person doing their own thing, and I like to help make them look good. I’ve accepted that I don’t need to be in the spotlight. I can give that to someone else,” Aidan said.

One of his favorite performance experiences was in this year’s spring show, where he got to don a T-rex costume during a comedy moment of a globe act, with the large spherical globes painted like dinosaur eggs.

“I got to walk on the stage looking all big and scary. I got to bop the kids on the heads, run off the stage, run back on, and then disappear,” he said.

He adds that his mother “plotted” with a coach and a program co-founder to make the dinosaur appearance a reality.

Aidan admits there is nothing like the satisfaction of performing for an enthralled and appreciative audience.

“I like the crowd thinking that this is the coolest thing ever. I like the praise we get as performers. I can’t not like that,” he said.

But he said this feeling of satisfaction is dependent on the success of his performance. He recollected a performance at this year’s spring show, where he and two other performers were doing a teeterboard routine called the “two high back balance,” which they had only successfully performed three times before. This act involves another boy standing on Aidan’s shoulders, who then catches the flyer by her back after she’s launched from the teeterboard. The third time, when they performed the trick a couple weeks later at a carnival, was their most successful attempt.  “We all thought ‘Wow! We didn’t think this was going to go so well.’ We thought we’d be out of practice,” Aidan said.

In the high school world, finding one’s niche can be challenging for many teens, but Aidan has clearly found a world in which he perfectly fits. He said that he doesn’t always get a lot of praise in other areas of his life.

“I keep my grades up – my parents love that. But in terms of people at my school, this is one of my biggest bargaining chips. I’ve been doing this for so long. Nobody can make fun of me for what I do. I love what I do, so I’m going to continue to do it,” he said.

As far as professional circus aspirations, Aidan said it is yet to be determined if he will attempt to make a career out of circus performing. He understands that circus performing isn’t something that one can do forever, so he will definitely apply to colleges and get a college education at some point. But, if the possibility of going professional presents itself, he would jump at the chance to do so.

“If I’m getting really good at something, and the person I’m doing it with said ‘let’s go professional,’ I probably wouldn’t say ‘no’ to that.”

He said he would consider the idea of taking a gap year or two to focus on circus performing before going to college.

For now, Aidan has two goals. Number one: To have a successful summer show. And number two: To continue getting better at the things he does.

“To keep yourself up there with the advanced kids, you need to keep improving with the advanced kids,” he said. “I’ll continue to work along with them, getting better with them until I graduate. And at that point, it’s kind of like… we’ll see what happens.”

Circus Juventas, co-founded in 1994 by circus performers Dan and Betty Butler, serves more than 2,500 youth, ranging in age from 2 to 18. Students in the program practice and perform in a 21,000-square-foot permanent big top facility, and they benefit from a diverse array of circus arts training and performance opportunities in a noncompetitive setting. Since the program’s inception, many alumni have gone on to professional careers with Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, The Wallenda Family, Bello Nock, The Royal Hanneford Circus, Cirque Mechanics, Cirque Eloize, and many other professional circus organizations. In collaboration with Cirque Du Soleil, Circus Juventas offers a two-year Professional Program, geared for circus-bound individuals and those who have aged out of the youth program, who aspire to take their talents to the professional level.

Sixteen Excalibur performances will be held at Circus Juventas from July 28 to Aug. 13. Tickets went on sale June 26 and are available at https://circus juventas.showare.com. Those who are interested in taking classes or donating to the nonprofit can find information on the Circus Juventas website.

Aidan Bowman, Circus Juventas, River Falls, Wisconsin