LUDLOW, Ky. — Tate West was walking past Circus Mojo on Elm Street one afternoon four years ago when Paul Miller handed her a flier about his company. Miller, a former clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, encouraged her to give the circus a try.
Tate was 12 years old at the time and had been diagnosed with severe depression from constant bullying. She had spent three weeks in a psychiatric unit, followed by weekly therapy sessions.
“She was looking for somewhere she could belong,” said her mom, Ginny West. “I thought, ‘Well, it’s the circus, which is kind of weird, but maybe it’s something she’d like.’”
Tate joined. Now 16 years old, the Ludlow High School student will attend a youth circus camp in Germany at the end of this month with her sister, Amber, and four other Circus Mojo students. The camp is called CircArtive Pimparello. For three weeks the students will live in circus tents, take classes and perform with campers from around the world. Amber and the others will return home afterward, but Tate will stay for the 2016-17 school year through an exchange program.
“I’ve realized this is the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” Tate said. “While some people can throw a football, I can juggle. And when people see that, they stop and watch and want to know how to do it. Little kids think we’re amazing. They want pictures and autographs.”
Circus Mojo has been a fixture in Ludlow since 2009. Miller created it with a focus on entertainment, education and community development. The company performs shows nationally and internationally, and it has been a partner with Cirque Du Soleil for more than a decade. Locally, they regularly host several camps and birthday parties. They were hired by Major League Baseball to perform throughout Cincinnati during last year’s All-Star Game festivities, and they’re often at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center performing for patients.
“Our goal is not to put people in circus careers. It’s about teaching them resiliency — if they fall down, they need to get back up again,” Miller said. “We’re also showing them that there is more to life than just being on their phones. They are getting out and doing something, meeting and making friends.”
Tate and Amber are unicyclists and jugglers. Tate also walks the tightrope, while Amber is skilled at the trapeze.
“I really like it,” said Amber, 14, a student at Dixie Height High School who joined Circus Mojo when she was 10. “It gives me the chance to do other things besides be normal.”
After learning plate spinning and juggling when she first joined, Tate wanted to give the unicycle a try “because that’s what the big kids were doing.”
“I asked Paul if I could take one home, and he said yes, but on one condition: I had to bring it back in two weeks and know how to ride it,” Tate said. “I rode it everywhere — through the snow, to get groceries, to pick up pizza for my family. People said I was the best pizza delivery person they’d ever seen.”
Tate has overcome a lot to get to where she is today. Performing for the circus is now her therapy.
“She’s ridden that unicycle around town for years. It’s easy to get bullied for that, but she’s gained a lot of confidence in herself,” Miller said. “Now she just says, ‘I don’t care.’ It’s given her a different perspective.”
Circus Mojo has hosted and taught students from 36 countries. Miller has also taken more than 100 students to camp at CircArtive Pimparello over the years. Tate said she will be the first American to attend the yearlong program in Germany. Details of her education outside of circus classes are still being developed, such as whether she will take online courses or attend classes in a German school with the assistance of an interpreter.
Tate is open to the circus’ becoming a career. Amber said she doesn’t know yet if it will be more than a hobby for her. Whatever they each decide, their mom will support them.
“The circus has given my girls more than I ever could; I certainly could not have gotten them to Germany,” Ginny West said. “I’m behind them as far as they want to take it. I want them to do whatever is in their hearts.”