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Circus Juventas

Running Away with the Show

There is something folkloric about the idea of running away to the circus.  We think of figures hopping from train cars or children ducking beneath the big top, but that isn’t what happened to Dan Butler, the co-founder of Circus Juventas.  The son of a banker and self-described “big hockey fan,” from Chicago, Dan comes from a traditional midwestern family.  So, the story of how he came to learn the trade, travel and perform professionally, and eventually found the largest youth circus in the world is just as much a surprise to him as anyone else. “It’s amazing how God can work in people’s lives,” says Dan. 

Circus Juventas is a Twin-cities-based 501 (c)(3) non-profit performing arts circus school for youth.  It teaches children of any age time-honored performing arts like juggling and acrobatics and showcases these skills in performances throughout the year.  And the story of how it came to begin in 1973, when Dan’s family moved to Sarasota, Florida, home of the Sarasota Sailor Circus.  “When we moved down there, I couldn’t play hockey, they didn’t have a wrestling team, they didn’t have a gymnastics team, and I was kinda hanging out at the Circus lot.”  Says Dan.  While watching through the chain link fence, Dan was enamored, despite being told off for his shaggy hair.  But eventually, Dan couldn’t stand to merely watch and remembers, “I thought, I’ll just get my hair cut and walk through the gate and I did, and my life was changed at that moment.  I ended up meeting my future wife, she taught me how to tie off a pulley block. I finally found something I was really great at.  I was like a fish who found water.”   

For the next four years of high school and then four years of college Dan, “Kinda lived and breathed circus during that time.” After graduation, Dan married Circus Juventas co-founder Betty Butler and traveled in two professional stints. “That was the extent of my professional career.  And again, since we didn’t come from a circus family background, I got a job in finance, we left in 1982 and moved to Atlanta, and started our lives and had kids.”  That might have been the end of Dan and Betty’s involvement with the circus. In fact, it took nearly a decade for the Butlers to return to the Midwest and re-live their circus roots. 

In 1991, after a decade in commercial real estate, Dan and Betty moved to Minnesota.  Returning to the Midwest, Dan wanted to start fresh. “If you knew who I was in Atlanta as a commercial real estate broker and you knew how I ended up becoming, you wouldn’t believe it’s the same person. It was all about me, about being successful and making a lot of money.  That was my only job,”  says Dan.  But, what Betty and Dan came up with for their fresh start was a youth program teaching the performing arts, and in 1994 Betty and Dan opened what would later become Circus Juventas as a, “Small parks and rec program with 8 hand-made pieces of equipment and 30 students.” 

The after-school program was an immediate hit: “You would have thought we invented sliced bread,”  says Dan.  But more important than the early success of the fledgling Circus Juventas was the impact on the students.  The goal of teaching trapeze and juggling goes beyond the skills themselves.  What Dan and Betty were teaching was something more foundational, “The significance—not just the self-confidence but the focus and drive when they are doing things that no other kid has ever done or could do—is incredible.”  From that lesson came another, which was Dan and Betty had to learn when to let students go. 

Early on in Circus Juventa's life, a mother asked to drop her son off at the program.  “He watched for a week.  By the next week he was starting to pick up the juggling ball, then a juggling scarf.  Long story short, by the end of that season he was performing and was a completely different kid,”  Says Dan.  It was shocking when the next year that student didn’t register.  Dan reached out to the student’s mother to learn that the student was starring in his high school’s play rather than staying at Circus Juventas.  “Betty and I had this revelation that sometimes kids stay with us all the way through high school, and sometimes kids come to get what they need and move on. It was one of the most profound experiences we ever had.”  Says Dan. 

That impact on the lives of youth in the community was always the focus of Circus Juventas. “We thought if we could just give kids the opportunity to do something that was so powerful, it was the inverse of the tragedy some kids lived through, they could carry it for the rest of their lives.”  Says Dan.  Since 1994, Circus Juventas has only grown, creating its own big-top home near Highland Park in 1997.  Now Circus Juventas works with about 1000 students across dozens of classes ranging from trapeze to ballet to foot archery. 

Dan’s focus is still on his students. The community aspect of raising a child is something Dan specifically thinks about when it comes to Circus Juventas and says, “It takes a community to raise a kid.  Just mom and dad can’t do it, and our community is a very tight community that helps each other when they are in need.”  The beauty of a circus has always been its acceptance and support.  The lessons learned from pushing oneself to walk a wire or swing trapeze can last a lifetime, even if students don’t have to run away to find it. 

For more, visit or call (651) 699-8229. 1270 Montreal Ave. St. Paul.