UNIVERSITY PARK -- With exaggerated moves and dramatic faces, Ja'niyla Edwards mimed getting her shoe caught on a piece of gum. She pulled and pulled at her stuck leg with both hands, finally freeing herself.
The first-grade student at Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication picked up the piece of gum and pointed to three fellow students performing under the big top at Circus Sarasota, asking: "Is this yours?"
When the students denied it was their already-been-chewed gum, Ja'niyla popped the piece into her mouth and began chewing. Soon after, she took the piece of gum out, leaving it in her hand. Moments later, she shook the hand of assistant principal and ringmaster Kim Penman. The two got stuck and were unable to pull away. After pulling and pulling, they decided to leave the stage together.
"It was like it was real, I felt like we were actually stuck," Ja'niyla said after her performance, part of the ninth annual Rowlett Academy Circus. "I was really scared, but it was really fun."
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Every year, the academy's first-grade students perform in front of family, friends and the school's kindergarten students. The joint venture between the charter school and the circus begins each year with a circus unit in January and culminates in the annual performance.
Clowns from the circus visit the first-grade classrooms, answering questions and teaching students how to perform. The teachers also do a circus unit, teaching the child the roots and culture of the circus as well as the history of circus in the Sarasota-Bradenton area. The unit helps teach children life skills including self-confidence, public speaking and teamwork, says Karen Bell, a clown and the education and outreach program manager for the Circus Arts Conservatory, which puts on Circus Sarasota.
"They have to share the stage with others," she said. "It's a wonderful enrichment program."
The hour-long event Thursday under the big top near the Mall at University Town Center featured 160 first-grade students at Rowlett who spun plates on dowels, performed magic tricks, bent metal poles as strong people, shot bows and arrows dressed in wild west garb -- just like an act one would expect to see from a professional circus.
Emerson Lepper and Isabella Gonzalez, partners during the plate-spinning performance, worked together seamlessly to transfer one spinning plate back and forth between their wooden dowels. In clown makeup and sailor caps, with beaming smiles after the performance, both students said they were nervous, although they'd been practicing since January.
"You have to make sure it doesn't fall off," Emerson said.
And while the plates stayed spinning, Isabella did lose her hat briefly during the performance, quickly leaning over to pick it back up and re-position it.
"I just kept going," Isabella said.
After the students performed, they were treated to an act by professionals: Pigs came out into the one-ring circus to perform feats, which included a singing pig and jumping pigs.
Roaring and jumping, the students all leaned forward intently in their seats, to get a better view. They were following what clown Robin Eurich called the three most important rules of the circus: pay attention, pay attention, pay attention.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.