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HARVARD – On a sunny spring day,
recess at the Harvard Elementary School
may look a lot like a three-ring circus. But
during the February thaw, the school turned
into an actual big top thanks to a grant from
the Cultural Council and PTO sponsorship.
Circus Smirkus visited the elementary school
last week, with a mission to promote the skills
and culture of traveling circus tradition. The 23-
year-old non-profit organization offers a wide
variety of programs, from circus camp at its Vermont
campus to off-site school “residencies” to performances across New England
and around the world.

Before February vacation,
“Mr. Rick” Davis, of Circus
Smirkus gave a preview of
his upcoming stint at the
school. “I’ll be your new
teacher for a couple of
weeks,” he said. But instead
of science, history or math,
his subject is circus, he said.
Davis demonstrated
“tricks” students would master
by the end of the course, such
as juggling, spinning saucers,
yodeling and even magic.

There are no grades, and
nobody gets hurt, he said, but
motivational maxims such as
try, try again, and step-by-step
aim to ensure that everybody
passes Circus. Called “circus
secrets,” the list also includes
going slow to learn things fast.

Touted on its Web site as “a
unique and inspiring” way to
enhance learning skills and
build confidence through circus
arts, Circus Smirkus promises
school residencies will be “an
unforgettable experience, filled
with educational value.”
Davis was all about that
message during his presentation
to the students. In an
interview afterward, he shared
his own inspiration for becoming
part of Circus Smirkus.
The conversation began
with his carpetbag. Asked
where he got this eye-catching
tote, Davis said he’d always
wanted one but never saw the
right model in a store. He put
it together from his image of
what it should look like, he
said, using an old doctor’s bag
he found discarded on the
street and material purchased
at a shopping mall for $7.

His career path seemed like
that bag, an oddly perfect marriage
of vision, serendipity and
practical magic. In the mid
1970’s, Davis was a clown with
Ringling Brothers Barnum &
Bailey Circus. “I’m not a funny
guy by nature, but I enjoyed
theater,” he said.

Hailing from a New York
suburb, he had a college degree
in Philosophy when he joined
the circus. “I knew how to juggle,
he said, which just about
rounded out his clown resume.
It was a creative job that
allowed him to “live and work
in a community,” he said. It
was a turnabout from his roots.

“My dad took the train to New
York City every day,” he said.
“We lived in separate worlds.”
But he didn’t run off to join
the circus and although it was
the hippie era, he was no dropout.
“I still planned on grad
school,” he said. But this was
“living the wonder of deep
thought” beyond the classroom
he said, trying out “my cosmic
sense of humor.” Circus life
also opened a window to a simpler
past, he said, when people
lived in close-knit communities
and worked close to home.

After the circus stint, he
struck out solo as a traveling
clown. Volunteering his services
via a link with the Peace Corps,
he lined up gigs in 30 countries.
He’d perform for free, staying at
the homes of other volunteers,
putting on shows at orphanages
and refugee camps. He wandered
village squares, playing
the accordion to attract a crowd.
He did that in the Caribbean, in
Africa and in China, he said.

Back in the states, his itinerary
included summer camps and
schools.
Asked about his teaching
goals now, Davis said he
hopes Circus Smirkus students
learn tools they need to
reach their goals.

“The program teaches the
value of persistence in a noncompetitive
environment
geared to any age and skill
level,” he said. Progress happens
through a series of easyto-
harder steps, with opportunities
for everyone to be
successful. And it’s measurable.

“They know when
they’ve got it,” he said.
There’s physical benefit,
too, which is one reason HES
Physical Education teacher
Barbi Kelley arranged to bring
Circus Smirkus to the school.
“Circus arts are the best
kept physical education
secret there is,” Davis said.