School opens doors to fantasy world of the circus: Esther Oxford reports on children mastering the skills of the big top

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ARCHING her back, cheeks flushed, eyes bright, she slithered into a crab. A flip, then the splits; the audience could be heard catching their breath. One more cartwheel, and the set was over. The child left the stage triumphant.

The children at Lapal Primary School, in Halesowen, near Birmingham, relish the gasps, the spotlights, the drum rolls. When the circus starts at 3.30pm the world of textbooks, home-to-tea, and teasing in the playground fades. In its place, with concentration, team work and persistence, a fantasy world of glittering gold, costumes and grease paint is built. A world as pliable as the imagination allows.

Yesterday's 45-minute show had juggling, comedy, balance, movement and dance. We saw ringmasters, glamour girls, tricksters and gymnasts. Some lit the stage up; others did not. But success was not judged by traditional standards.

'I teach the children that there is no such thing as failure,' Chris Ogden, leader of the Circus Club, said. 'If they don't catch the juggling ball, the ball 'falls to the ground'. It has not 'dropped'.' Mr Ogden, 30, started the Circus Club three years ago. What began as a physical education lesson developed into a class project then into an after-school club. Now the club has 35 members, aged 7 to 11, and a waiting list of 15. The club is funded by the children, who learn business skills from selling T-shirts, raising money and deciding what equipment to buy. Last

year the show toured schools in the area and appeared on television.

'I want to be in a circus when I grow up,' one boy said. 'I want to be a clown,' another said. One by one they pledged their commitment to circus life until we came to the star of the show - a freckle-faced, golden-haired girl. 'I want to be an astronaut,' she said, 'although I'll never forget the circus. I'll take my skill with me when I leave. It is part of me.'

(Photograph omitted)