Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University celebrates a milestone anniversary this weekend with a show that looks back over the decades, even as the circus moves confidently towards a bright future.
In 1929, Clifford "Pop" Horton established Gamma Phi at Illinois State. At the time, Gamma Phi was a gymnastics fraternity, and Horton, ISU’s first full-time physical education instructor, was eager to help young students stay fit and active. From demonstrations on the campus and tumbling run demonstrations at football games, Gamma Phi evolved into a circus that challenged its student performers and entertained the circus fans in the community.
Marcus Alouan is the current director of Gamma Phi Circus. Building on the success of the past, said Alouan, has helped the organization last for 90 years.
“I believe we’re in the best shape we have ever been in. We’re the strongest program we’ve ever been. But that is all do to what those who came before us started," he said.
He gives props to Pop for starting it all. Pop Horton was something of a legend on the ISU campus, said Maureen Brunsdale, Special Collections librarian at Milner Library. The young professor quickly earned his nickname, courtesy of the students he mentored.
“He took so many young men under his wing when he first got here that they felt that Professor Horton was more of a father-figure to them. So they called him ‘Pop.’ And the name stuck.”
When originally recruiting for Gamma Phi, Horton established a list of criteria for all students who wanted to participate. The list was dubbed The Horton Ten, and it was tough, said Brunsdale.
“There were high jumps and long jumps and how far you could throw a baseball,” she said.
Can you run the 100-yard dash in 12 seconds? Rope climb 18 feet in eight seconds? Punt a football 35 yards? Great! Then you’re in!
As the years passed, the daunting criteria changed in order to allow more students to participate. Currently, there’s just over 100 members of Gamma Phi Circus, and it’s those students that have been the secret to the circus’ longevity, said Alouan. The students are willing to try new things.
“They explore things they never thought possible before coming to be a part of Gamma Phi Circus. I know that was the case for me. It’s the thing that really drew me to this organization.”
One student who has pushed herself to try something new is Kaitlin Hall. The freshman had previous experience as a gymnast and diver, but said even those things didn’t prepare her for the excitement of performing on apparatus such as the Russian Swing.
“When I first started Russian Swing, I literally fell off of it my first time,” Hall said with a grin. “And now looking at where I am now, I just think it’s super inspiring that you can transform your talents that quickly here at Gamma Phi.”
“It’s so freeing being able to fly that high through the air. I’ve never felt anything like that. It’s amazing!”
Helping the students to reach new heights is Ivan Stoinev. As artistic director of Gamma Phi Circus, he brings a lifetime of experience working in professional circuses, including Ringling Brother and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
“He’s been able to train our students in ways that we haven’t had opportunities to do before,” explained Alouan.
Don’t look down. That's a bit of advice that Stoinev said has prompted many a student off the ground and up on the high wire.
“As soon as they look down, they get afraid. We, of course, build them up. We start from the low wire, the 3-foot wire, then we have 6-foot wire, then we get them up on the 20-foot high wire. We build them up that way. And they fight their fear and they make it. We have one performer who was afraid of heights when she came. And now you’ll see her in the show in high heels on the high wire.”
Sounds scary, but Stoinev revealed safety has a starring role at Gamma Phi Circus.
“They’re students, not professionals. Even though the show they put on is at a professional level, we very much worry about them.”
Junior Gigi Velazquez appreciates the safety measures that are in place. They make her a better performer, she said. She does the aerial cube.
“The more scared you are, the more tense you get. You want to relax and not be afraid of anything.”
“There are points where your life is at risk,” said junior Diego Hernandez. He performs on the German Wheel. “You have to have trust in your partner, and they have to have trust in you. You have to really understand what you’re doing and when you're doing it. You can’t really forget about it at any point.”
Working closely together in such unique circumstances has helped to foster a feeling of family among the performers, said Kristin Hall.
“Everyone is super supportive and accepting of everyone in the gym. There’s no one that we would ever turn away or reject.”
After 90 years, Gamma Phi Circus is in a strong position to continue for 90 more years, said Alouan. The past and future success of the organization, he said, is the result of the passion of the student performers.
“The students who perform in Gamma Phi Circus do not receive scholarship money. They’re not being paid. They’re full-time students, many of them are volunteering in the community. They have very busy lives, but they take time out of their lives to come here to train because they love the circus arts.”
“They’re here 100 percent because they love it.”
Gamma Phi Circus celebrates its 90th anniversary with shows Friday, April 12, at 7 p.m. and Saturday the 13th at 1 and 7 p.m. in Redbird Arena. A pre-show children’s carnival takes place prior to Saturday’s matinee performance.
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