After almost 30 years and nearly 30,000 students, big changes are happening at St. Paul's Big Top, Circus Juventas. Founders Dan and Elizabeth "Betty" Butler are stepping away from their renowned circus school.
"It gives us time to enjoy retirement while we're still young," said Betty Butler, the school's artistic director since its founding in 1994.
Dan Butler, who talked of the heavy lifting that was required to see the school successfully through a global COVID-19 pandemic, said the couple have been thinking about stepping away for several years.
"When COVID hit, I was pretty tired. We actually thought it was over," Dan Butler said. "The timing is just right."
Never fear, circus fans, the trapezes and trampolines aren't going still. The circus school's year-round training program and its seasonal shows are continuing; Rob Dawson and the Butlers' daughter, Rachel Butler Norris, have stepped into the school's leadership roles.
Dawson, the new executive director, comes to St. Paul after many years as an acrobat and coach with the world-famous Cirque Du Soleil.
"I want to focus on [students'] experience here and on the experience of their parents," Dawson said. "And I want to say just how honored I am to be taking on this role."
Butler Norris worked alongside her parents as Circus Juventas' national and international profiles have grown. While she said she is excited to continue the trail blazed by her mother, she admitted in a recent interview to having a few butterflies following in those footsteps.
"It's very daunting to think I have to create something that lives up to it, of that same caliber," Butler Norris said. "I have a good handle on what worked really well. I'm sure there will be some differences, but I'm curious to see what those will be."
The elder Butlers will continue to help their successors during the next year, Dan Butler said. Nevertheless, stepping away is a bit bittersweet, he said.
"I'm going to miss the kids," he said of the thousands of students who found confidence, passion and careers in the circus arts.
Said Betty Butler: "I'll miss the creativity. I just love the creative process."
Nonprofit Circus Juventas was started with the idea of inspiring artistry and self-confidence through a circus arts experience. Whether its students found a new calling, or a place where they felt they belonged, Dan Butler said Circus Juventas strove to empower its students with new possibilities.
"We've accepted kids from all walks of life and from all backgrounds," he said.
According to its website, Circus Juventas alumni have gone to work at Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, the Flying Wallendas, Bello Nock, the Royal Hanneford Circus, Cirque Mechanics, Cirque Eloize and many other professional circus organizations. Danny Butler, Dan and Betty's youngest child, is performing his professional inaugural season with Ringling Brothers.
According to the website, the Butlers met as teenagers in Sarasota, Fla., where they trained at Sailor Circus, one of the oldest circus schools in the country. They continued training as young adults at the Florida State University Flying High Circus.
In 1994, the Butlers returned to the circus after years away, starting Circus of the Star, an after-school program in Highland Park. In August 2000, they broke ground on a permanent home at 1270 Montreal Av. In July 2001, they opened the school's new Big Top.