An after school circus program in Scarborough is juggling and cycling its way to Florida this month, a trip that has been three years in the making.
The Gym Dandies will perform June 24 and June 25 at Universal Studios in Orlando. They were originally scheduled for performances in 2020. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic began its sweep across the globe.
“When COVID started, we had to postpone the trip,” Nolan Orff said at a morning practice last Saturday. “All of us have been eager to get down there.”
Having graduated in 2021, Orff and Anne MacLeod thought they missed their chance, but then they were given the opportunity to perform as alumni.
“I’m excited,” MacLeod said. “We kind of turned it into a family trip.”
Orff and MacLeod joined the Dandies in third and sixth grades, respectively. As they got their feet – and unicycles – under them, they began mentoring younger students.
“Once you get to high school and middle school you get to come back on the days the beginner students come,” Orff said. “You teach them everything you know, and it really helps grow the program.”
Sophomore Leah Maxwell and freshman Zoe Cogan both joined in third grade, the soonest they were eligible, after watching the Dandies perform the year before.
“One of my favorite places to perform is at schools,” Maxwell said. “Particularly primary schools, because I like seeing kids get so excited about it.”
Like Maxwell and Cogan, many members have been inspired to join the Dandies because of those performances, which were halted by the pandemic.
“That’s been the problem with COVID, really,” Cogan said. “We haven’t gotten a whole lot of new members because these kids haven’t seen us do what we do.”
Before the pandemic the group had 220 members but now has roughly 120, said Gym Dandies Director Dave Sloatman.
“The hardest thing has been keeping it going through the pandemic,” Sloatman said. “We had to change the way we did a lot of things.”
Many of the routines the Dandies practice and perform involve being in close proximity to one another and holding hands.
But the Dandies are slowly getting back to business as usual, and their performances at Universal Studios later this month give them plenty of room to operate.
The Dandies will participate in Universal’s “Morning Marching” on June 24, and were poised to participate in the theme park’s Superstar Pre-Parade the following day. When that parade was canceled, Universal asked them if they’d like to do a parade by themselves.
“It’s Universal Studios and they’ve never had unicyclists before,” Sloatman said. “The really cool thing is we’re going to have the parade route to ourselves, so we get to choregraph what we’re doing instead of having to respond to stops in the parade – and following behind horses and what they leave behind.”
The Dandies are always trying to get more creative with their routines, which has been part of Performance Level Coordinator Janoah Bailin’s job since joining the program five years ago.
“We tried something out there today and it didn’t work very well, and we had to scratch it,” he said at the June 4 practice. “We’re willing to try things and sometimes it doesn’t work, and sometimes it works really, really well.”
While the pandemic hampered their recruitment efforts, the 41-year-old program can still rely on tight family bonds.
“My brother and sister used to do it, and I tried it in third grade,” said Kaci Presley, a sixth grader.
The Dandies have even seen multigenerational talent.
“My brother did it too,” said Grace Swinburne, grade 5, “and my dad was one of the original Dandies.”
The group was founded by now-retired Scarborough physical education teacher Jon Cahill in 1981, and was made up of 10 fifth- and sixth graders. Since then, hundreds of students have been Dandies.
“It really grows from his vision,” said Jeannine Uzzi, president of the Gym Dandies booster organization. “Not all kids are going to become soccer players or tennis players, but what can we do that’s going to be inclusive for all kids?”
If they don’t want to play organized sports, the Dandies give kids an opportunity for recreation and to be part of a team – but unicycling and juggling are as hard as they look. Both take patience, practice and perseverance.
“When you fail over and over and over, it can be hard,” Maxwell said. “I think that’s what Gym Dandies kids do best; they try harder when they fail.”
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