With an hour until showtime, pixie dust floats among children swinging on ropes a dizzying distance from solid ground; footsteps echo from somewhere above; and a girl on a unicycle scuttles under the bleacher-style seating.

Under the big top at Circus Juventas, located in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, one young man, dressed in a plaid, button-down shirt, khaki shorts and striking stage makeup, sets down his McDonald’s iced coffee and grabs a strap hanging from the ceiling 30 feet above. After a nod of the head, he runs in a circle until his feet float off the ground and he begins to fly.

This is Nick Dahlen, originally from Eagan, and now a St. Thomas junior, who, for one last summer, split his time between aerial stunts at the circus and studying for a B.A. in marketing. Because Nick turns 21 this year, he had to say goodbye to Circus Juventas, the largest youth performing arts circus in the country. Nick concluded his circus career as the pirate Gentleman Starkey in Circus Juventas’ sold-out summer production of “Neverland.”

Trading baseball bats for backflips

A childhood of flying and flipping in the circus was something neither Nick nor his parents expected. As a child, he tried the typical extracurricular activities, such as baseball, soccer, hockey and karate. While proficient at them all, none of these sports lit a fire in Nick. After attending a classmate’s circus performance in sixth grade, he begged his parents to enroll him in a class. Kim and Keith Dahlen, sufficiently wowed by the acrobatic wonder of the performance as well as their son’s enthusiasm, agreed. Both Kim and Keith grew up with passions of their own that, as Kim explained, “shaped who (they) are today,” and they always have wanted similar experiences for their children, Nick and his siblings, Joey, 17, and Grace, 12.

The following summer, Nick’s parents enrolled him in a beginning circus class at Circus Juventas, which was founded in 1994 by Dan and Betty Butler using a model inspired by Cirque du Soleil, a company among the first to exchange animal and clown acts for strategic and extravagant performances that combine theater, dance and athletic artistry.

Nick was hooked by the infectious hybrid of gymnastics and theater in his first class. Kim remembers her son rigging his backyard Rainbow swing set into various circus apparatuses, and practicing new tricks and combos whenever he could.

With continuous work came quick progression. After Nick’s first summer class, Kim stayed to observe one of his practices. With bewilderment, she watched her son do eight backflips in rapid succession. As she sat in awe, mouth open, other parents shared in her joy. “Yup, that’s your kid,” Kim recalled them saying to her.

Learning to fly

When Nick began in the circus, he was at the age when somersaults are fun and we believe wholeheartedly in our ability to fly. With years spent at Circus Juventas, Nick has been able to sustain that age of abandon and fearlessness far longer than most of us. This mindset helped Nick advance through his youth classes where he practiced preparatory stunts such as low casting, which is circus-speak for a mini flying trapeze, and learned to forgo that natural inclination to cling to safety while in the air.

“I think that is a really cool thing that I have learned to do at circus: trusting my body and my muscle memory while performing,” Nick said.

This trust in his body, as he showcased in “Neverland,” allows Nick to perform more advanced, scarier tricks that, while simultaneously terrifying and amazing to us, feel as natural as walking to him. Or so it appears.

Even after nine years in the circus, the trust Nick has cultivated never ceases to eliminate the wonder of the acrobatic stunts. When performing these tricks, Nick gets a “super-adrenaline-pumping feeling of excitement mixed with nerves and pressure.”

Despite this feeling, he still flies.

Nick’s aerial specialties include Spanish Web and Straps. To perform Spanish Web, he climbs a long, cloth-covered rope, wraps himself in it and maneuvers his body upside down and sideways, much of the time without the use of his hands – or safety harnesses. Nick relies on the security of a wrapped ankle or wrist to save him from plunging downward. In Straps, Nick performs a series of acrobatic movements with a partner on the straps apparatus, which looks like two suspended ribbons.

Teeterboard, a team stunt focused on flips and human pyramids, is Nick’s favorite. “It’s like a teeter-totter you’d see at a playground, but it’s a circus-style teeterboard that goes like this,” Nick said as he held his hands out in front of him and moved his right hand up as his left hand went down. In a typical teeterboard routine, Nick or another flyer stands on one end of the board while an acrobat jumps onto the other end, causing the flyer to launch into the air, where he or she flips, twists and spins, and then lands either on the ground or on another’s shoulders in an elegant display of balance, strength and trust.

Watching Nick perform these aerial and teeterboard stunts alongside his teammates, it’s evident these youths share a trust that extends beyond swapping secrets on the upper quad. Nick and his teammates have spent most of their time together at the mercy of each other’s strength and concentration; it’s an “I can’t let go of you; you can’t let go of me” mentality, Kim explained.

From straps to class

As Nick’s graduation from Eagan High School approached and he began exploring colleges, proximity to Circus Juventas was a deciding factor in what school he would attend. At 18, six years into his circus career, Nick was not ready to step away from that community. St. Thomas, just a 10-minute drive from the big top, was what the young performer needed.

For most undergraduates, especially incoming freshmen, a new environment and full class load are their limit. But Nick continued with his rigorous practice schedule throughout his freshman and sophomore years at St. Thomas. Once he was done with classes at 3 or 4 p.m., Nick would drive to Circus Juventas for a full night of tumbling, flying and stretching. He’d return to campus around 9 p.m. to tackle the long to-do list of studying.

His secret? His calendar. “Nick is someone who does better when his schedule is full,” his mom said.

Building community under the big top

The bond cultivated amid the straps and the teeterboards is rooted in the community Nick has found at Circus Juventas. Coaches from around the world, parent volunteers and 2,500 students create what Nick calls his “second home.”

His coaches have served as mentors throughout his teenage years, guiding Nick through ups and downs, both under the big top and beyond.

From practices to prep work to showtime, continuous hustle and bustle from volunteers – many of them parents – is the norm. Volunteers build and paint the sets, work concession stands during performances and sell tickets.

It’s not just the adults who are responsible for the behind-the- scenes necessities; Nick, along with his teammates, helps with set and costume changes during performances and makeup application prior to showtime.

Nick’s circus community’s heart and soul are perhaps most evident in the dressing room the day of a performance. Hair-braiding trains congregate along the edges of the room, techno pop tunes pulsate from an old-school boom box, and performers in varying degrees of costume and makeup scurry about.

During the production of “Neverland,” Nick was scheduled to do many of his teammates’ makeup as well as his own. On this particular performance day, he gravitates to the far-right end of the mirror that expands the width of the wall. As a group of his teammates huddle and negotiate mirror space, Nick applies his makeup, only occasionally looking at the character makeup guide posted on the mirror for reference.

He draws whimsical, neat lines along his face, dusts in vibrant color and contours his features with quick, feather-like movements. A friend compliments his work, and Nick accepts it graciously and quietly. Spending just 10 minutes in front of the mirror, he emerges a fierce circus warrior, enhancing his already strong, piercing features. He spends no extra time admiring his work and moves on to applying another teammate’s makeup.

In the air and on the ground, these performers “make each other better people,” Kim said.

Nick Dahlen

And the show goes on

Nick is last seen at the pre-show meeting, the moment his butterflies usually begin. Following his coaches’ words of encouragement, he disappears.

It’s now 12:58 p.m. The stage is dark. A voice encourages the audience members to turn off their twinkling little gadgets and prepare for an afternoon of wonder and magic. Nick is spotted stage right, making last-minute tweaks to his first costume. A trace of nerves is seen in his eyes, but then the music begins, and he and his partner meet the other couples on stage. His shoulders fall, and the nerves are replaced with sparkle. Nick is home.

Circus Juventas has been, in some ways, Nick’s very own Neverland, the big top his boundless island where dreams never die and flying is possible so long as he believes. Leaving this place has been difficult for him, but, like J.M. Barrie’s Neverland, a place that forever exists in the minds of children, he always will have Circus Juventas and the community he has built there. Lessons of confidence, success, and the freedom and spirit of the body are forever his, so long as he never ceases to believe.

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One Response

  1. Carol Kalan

    Lyssa,
    Another outstanding feature. I enjoyed it immensely. I have a friend whose Granddaughter is part of that Circus and I learned a lot about the commitment and hard work involved. I am anxious to tell her about your story.
    G