Just dandy in Scarborough: Young performers learn the value of practice, friendly competition

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SCARBOROUGH — Jon Cahill weaves slowly through the controlled chaos exploding around him in the Wentworth Intermediate School gym.

His tan jeans are tucked into his Rollerblades, and black, bulky elbow and knee pads help him blend in a sea of children sporting similar outfits.

All around him there are kids juggling colored balls and plastic bats, riding unicycles of every shape and size, and hopping to and from giant, rubber balls. His students, known as the Gym Dandies, flock to him to announce their recent triumphs.

“Mr. Cahill, Mr. Cahill! I did 600 stationary today!” says 10-year-old Lauren Topchik from atop the 6-foot tall giraffe unicycle.

He turns and explains that 600 stationary means she has gone back and forth a half-rotation of the pedals 600 times. This, he assures me, is a feat.

“She’s one of my most talented kids,” Cahill says. “But it’s because she practices all the time.”

More than 200 strong

Cahill began the Gym Dandies, a circus performance group based in Scarborough, in 1981 with 10 children, a box full of tennis balls and only a few juggling skills himself. Now the program has more than 200 students and has toured the country performing at parades and events.

They’ve performed several times in the National Independence Day Parade in Washington D.C., the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, and are scheduled to perform at the Philadelphia Fourth of July Parade this summer. The group has also been featured on the PBS  television show “ZOOM.”

“When we perform, when 60 people riding unicycles come toward you, it’s pretty incredible to see. It’s great for the kids. They’re just beaming,” Cahill said.

In addition to the national attention, the students have plenty of opportunity to perform locally. You can catch them at the Yarmouth Clam Festival, Rockland Lobster Festival and entertaining exhausted cyclists at the Trek Across Maine first night stop in Farmington this summer.

Cahill, a retired phys ed teacher, emphasized that the students not only learn balance and get a good workout, they also have the opportunity to participate in a group activity that is not a directly competitive sport.

“They’re not trying to beat other teams. They have to work together in the performance,” he said.

Although, he admitted, they compete with each other to be the best.

“When one kid learns a new skill, the rest want to catch up,” Cahill said.

Practice makes perfect

At today’s practice, a tiny girl in a purple tie-dye T-shirt juggles scarves, which Cahill explains, is how they begin to learn. Other beginners spin plastic colored plates atop thin, wooden dowels. There are small unicycles all around, crashing to the floor again and again as the beginners practice staying upright.

All of the children on unicycles or the giant balance balls are wearing bicycle helmets, elbow and knee pads.

“They don’t do anything if they don’t have their gear on,” Cahill says, tapping his own elbow pad.

The program costs $110 per year, and if students are not able to afford the fee, there are scholarships available. The fees go toward purchasing new equipment and paying the nine assistants Cahill uses to help run the program. The school lets the Gym Dandies use the gyms for free, which helps keep the program affordable and allows it to fall under the School Department’s liability insurance.

The students have a formal practice once a week, and the performance team practices separately from the beginners.

Sixth-grader Kyle Ankermann knows what it’s like to come up through the program. He started with the Gym Dandies when he was in third grade.

“When I saw all those unicycles, I thought, I want to do that, one day that will be me,” Ankermann says, adding from atop a 36-inch unicycle, “I really like to be the center of attention.”

The program allows students to move at their own pace. Many purchase unicycles and practice at home.

Elaine Corrow, whose daughters, Hope, 11, and Erin, 9, are members of the Gym Dandies, said she purchased a unicycle for them to use at home after they proved to her they would stick with it.

“Hope just made the performance team and Erin just got up on the unicycle this week,” she said. “It’s such a unique program. They just love it.”

The students are grouped according to skill, rather than grade level, so they are able to socialize with kids they don’t see during the school day. There are even a few home-schooled children who participate in the program.

“They all help one another out. They all have to get along,” Corrow said.

‘Tomato alert!’

Cahill scoots between balancing acts and spins around on his Rollerblades. It’s time for practice to end.

“Tomato alert!” he hollers across the gym. It’s the cue for everyone to drop to the floor. The crowded gym goes silent. He thanks them for their hard work and asks everyone to carefully put away the equipment, then gather in a circle in the middle of the floor.

Like clockwork, they disperse, hanging unicycles on the racks, and then, packing juggling equipment into mesh bags and boxes, gather to his instructions. He watches, beaming with pride.

“I still get choked up watching them,” Cahill says, “and I’ve been doing this for 35 years.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

Sidebar Elements

Instructor Brandon Baines and Chris Franklin, 10, juggle orange bats during Gym Dandies practice at the Wentworth Intermediate School gym in Scarborough. The after-school circus group meets several times a week to practice tricks and balancing skills, and performs regularly at events from parades in Washington D.C. to the Yarmouth Clam Festival.

Jon Cahill helps Lauren Topchik, 10, balance on the giraffe unicycle during Gym Dandies practice last week, while sixth-grader Kyle Ankermann adjusts his helmet in the background. The Gym Dandies is an afterschool program in Scarborough that teaches students a variety of circus skills. The group regularly performs at parades all over the country.