Fine & Dandy
Let's all start together," says a calm voice from the center of the gymnasium at Wentworth Intermediate School in Scarborough. "Right, right, toss."
As Jon Cahill speaks, seventy colored rings are lofted into the air by the seventy students lined up on opposite sides of the gym. With each cue from Cahill, another ring is thrown, until many of the students are juggling three rings apiece. On "toss," the third ring is supposed to sail high above, but the sound of plastic clattering to the ground echoes through the room as dozens of kids lose the rhythm.
Cahill just grins. A trim fifty-nine-year-old former physical-education teacher who spent decades in the Scarborough school system, he's completely at ease among the Gym Dandies, the kids' circus arts group he founded in 1981. The students practicing this afternoon represent the cream of the crop. Ranging in age from ten to eighteen, and in grade level from fifth to twelfth, they are the Gym Dandies performance group. They've ridden their six-foot-tall unicycles, known as "giraffes", on Broadway for the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, and they've rolled en masse down Constitution Avenue as part of the national Fourth of July parade in Washington, D.C. (where they will perform again this month). More than a hundred other kids — 220 in all — belong to the Gym Dandies, too, starting as early as third grade to learn unicycling, juggling, globe walking, and stilt walking in weekly after-school practices.
"Tomato alert," Cahill says over his wireless microphone as he rollerblades through the gym. He doesn't shout; the words alone — a nonsense phrase that's unlikely to be heard outside a Gym Dandies gathering — are enough to stop the kids in their tracks. Seconds later, they're all sitting on the floor quietly. "Who didn't drop once?" Cahill asks the group. About fifteen kids raise their hands. "That's good," he says, "but we can do better."
By all accounts, the approach is typical of Cahill: accept, and even welcome, failure — but strive for excellence. Or, as one of the group's mottoes goes, "Practice makes everything possible."
That sentiment is repeated by Kaycee Stevens, 16, who's gained some recent media attention for an avid pursuit of his hobby: rocketing a special off-road unicycle (its tire is thicker than that of your average unicycle) down mountain-bike trails from Maine to Utah. "I find it funner than riding in a gym," he says, adding that riding a unicycle is not as difficult as it might appear. "They say it takes ten to fifteen hours to learn, and almost anyone can learn," he says. "I mean, they've taught bears to do it."
Cahill himself learned to unicycle along with the kids. In 1981, the South Carolina native introduced juggling in his Scarborough PE classes; the students liked it so much that he started an after-school juggling club. When one of the boys in the club got a unicycle for Christmas, he asked Cahill to help him figure it out. Using the instructional booklet that came along with the unicycle, Cahill taught himself, and the young man, how to ride. A few months later, the group held a juggle-a-thon to raise money to buy a handful of unicycles. And by the end of 1982, twenty kids were unicycling.
Twenty-five years after the Gym Dandies Children's Circus was founded, the group is thriving. Cahill, who retired from teaching in 2004, figures he devotes at least twenty hours a week to the group, along with a cadre of adult volunteers. Chuck Horton, who among other duties runs the group's sound system, is the rare volunteer who doesn't have a kid in the program. "My grandson dropped out," he says, "but I stayed with it."
This year, Cahill was particularly gratified by the performance of the group's three seniors, Cassi Kapinos, Sarah Morin, and Dana Bennett. All three have been with the Gym Dandies for nearly ten years; in addition to performing, Morin and Kapinos have spent hours helping out with the beginner classes, while Bennett has turned his skills into a lucrative part-time job, performing with a friend at parties and special events.
The seniors' departure will be a loss, according to Cahill — "They feel like family to me," he says — but he's confident that he's sending them into the world with a solid foundation for whatever they choose to do. "The kids who really stick with this, if they experience failure, it doesn't bother them," he says. "If they fail at something, they just keep trying."
Back in the gym, Cahill's got the kids up on their giraffes, riding in formation as they practice for an upcoming performance. A young boy hesitates, his unicycle leaned up against the bleachers. Cahill glides over, taking the boy's hand and talking quietly as he boosts him up on the seat. "The worst thing that can happen is that you'll fall," he says. "You'll be all right."
The boy wobbles off and slowly straightens out, visibly relaxing on his perch. Cahill smiles, then disappears into the crowd.