Lou Beekhuizen was cheerfully following her clowning dreams in London, amusing audiences in performances with Zippos Circus, until she met a Long Islander who persuaded her to bring her act to this side of the pond.
In the seven years since, Beekhuizen, who is known as “Little Lou,” has performed at schools, libraries and summer programs in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other areas along the Eastern Seaboard with the Westbury-based National Circus Project.
Its programs include the weeklong Student Circus Stars Program, which many schools refer to as Circus Week; an artist-in-residence program, where a performer comes to the school for several days; and one-time performances at school assemblies, libraries and special events such as picnics, fairs and holiday celebrations.
The National Circus Project estimates that it performs annually in about 200 schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties. In addition to programs for students, there is teacher-in-service training on how educators can add a circus skills unit at their schools, from teaching methods to classroom activities and curriculum development. Beekhuizen, 32, is also staff director for the organization and spends a fair amount of time planning and organizing the 30-plus artists — including one who is from Russia — who work with the National Circus Project at different times.
When she morphs into character, she performs her high-energy clown act with a charming British accent. Her favorite act is balancing — from feathers to 55-pound folding tables to a wheelbarrow.
“I created my balancing act originally to say, ‘No, balancing is not just holding a feather on your chin. You can do anything,’ ” Beekhuizen said. “As long as you go out there and push yourself and try, you can amaze people. I balance a table that’s twice my size. I put a lot of thought and effort into that act.”
Which puts a lot of strain on her back. Beekhuizen said she visits her chiropractor three times a week.
Her balancing act resonated recently with fourth-grader Brandon Nanoo, 9, at Stratford Road Elementary School in the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District. Earlier this month, the school hosted a weeklong National Circus Project workshop run by Little Lou and her fiance, fellow clown Renaldo, also known as Al Calienes, 52.
“I liked when Little Lou balanced a table on her chin,” said Brandon, of Plainview.
Emily Sidiski, 9, of Plainview, said she enjoyed the diabolo, a juggling prop manipulated with sticks that looks like two cups connected by an axle that spins on a string. “I thought they were really cool and I liked that you could do that under the legs like Renaldo did.”
Pantomimes to performances
Beekhuizen now lives in Port Jefferson, but she grew up in Camberley in Surrey, southwest of London. She studied performing arts at Farnborough College of Technology, also about an hour southwest of London.
“I found myself gravitating to the comedy side of shows and doing pantomime,” she said, referring to the family-oriented musical comedy stage productions popular in Britain around Christmas, where performers sing, dance and perform slapstick comedy.
She tried juggling, and it tried her.
“I could basically throw three things and drop them a lot,” Beekhuizen said with a laugh. “There’s a lot more involved in the circus, and that’s what I fell in love with.”
She attributes her knack for comedy to Pauline, her financial director mother, “one of the funniest people I know,” and her love of performing to Peter, her architect father, who loves to sing and performs karaoke.
“Since I was 8 years old they’ve found things for me to do involving performing,” she said. “They knew the direction I wanted to go in, and it was just a quick swing around to do the circus.”
In fact, they drove her to the start of her Academy of Circus Arts training program, a touring circus school in England and they’ve attended several of her performances. They visit her once or twice a year in the States.
“I don’t know what I’d do if they weren’t so supportive,” Beekhuizen said. “They always said, ‘As long as you can support yourself, go ahead and do what you love.’ This is a real job and a real career and I am doing really well for myself.”
She met Huntington Station resident Greg Milstein, now 51, while studying clowning at the Academy of Circus Arts. For almost six months, students learn skills and perform as the troupe travels around England, and Milstein — executive director of the National Circus Project — was one of Beekhuizen’s teachers.
After graduating, she honed her skills with Zippos Circus, traveling around England to towns large and small for 2 1/2 years, acting as one of the circus’ three clowns. Afterward, Milstein extended an invitation to work in America.
The National Circus Project doesn’t use the phrase anti-bullying, but it does address the issue with its inclusive policy of incorporating everyone, making sure no student is left behind and emphasizing that everyone, including students with disabilities or adaptive equipment, works together.
“You see the kids are all on the same page because no one has done these kinds of things,” said Stratford Road Elementary gym teacher Jodi Horowitz. “Through practice and hard work they get to see how everyone can handle that skill. There’s no dominance.”
Beekhuizen said one of her favorite acts is her one-clown dance party, performed along with teachers and other school staff to the Village People’s hit song “YMCA.” She has performed it for 10 years and said it’s always a hit. But the job isn’t all red noses, skits and greasepaint.
Sometimes, clowns don’t make people laugh. Beekhuizen said the hardest part of being a clown are the times when her act is met with silence.
“When your jokes don’t go well and it doesn’t go the way you want it to go, that’s the worst,” she said. “You just have to get the experience, and learn to adapt to your audience.”
The Student Circus Residence Program is a five-day stint that begins with an assembly that is followed by introductory hands-on workshops — such as juggling, balancing and devil sticks — for all students. A target group (for example, students of a certain age or grade level) gets training in advanced skills such as stilt-walking, clowning, rolling globes, acrobatics, hula-hoops, balance boards, tightwire and more. The target group at Stratford Road, which is attended by students in first through fourth grade, was fourth-graders.
Stratford’s Circus Week began with the schoolwide assembly, then during the week all students practiced circus skills such as juggling, balancing and devil sticks in hands-on workshops. The fourth-graders who performed a show for relatives at the end of the week received extra focus in target groups, 40-minute sessions where they worked with the National Circus Project artists on skills and choreography for their act.
Beekhuizen said she loves how quickly children can change gears and gets to see that in play at schools like Stratford, which this month marked its 10th anniversary of programs with the National Circus Project.
“Some kids say, ‘I’ve been waiting since kindergarten to do this,’ and then they try it and find it’s not as much fun as they expected,” Beekhuizen said. “So they do another act they’ve never considered and they’re amazing at it. It’s great to see them grow up and get more determined.”
Horowitz, 41, a fan of the circus arts program, said the school’s younger students look forward to taking specific skills classes once they get to fourth grade, Horowitz said, and everyone enjoys the introductory assembly show and the physical education class workshops during Circus Week.
Students who are shy or have some challenges thrive in this program just as much as those who are more athletic, Horowitz said, adding that some come into school 45 minutes early during circus week to practice their skills.
“The program helps kids come out of their shells and realize their potential,” she said. “It’s a great self-esteem builder. When you have that kind of success, that kind of enthusiasm and excitement, it makes me smile as a phys ed teacher. This is a lifetime memory my kids are making.”
Beekhuizen said she loves teaching the students circus skills and habits they can apply to their lives. It’s not just juggling, or stilt walking, or tightwire, or spinning plates — it’s showing them that they can do it if they practice and work hard, she said. And there’s a place for everyone in the show at the end of the week.
“If they’re too shy to be up front, we make them a stage manager,” said Calienes, the Port Jefferson resident who performed as Renaldo during the weeklong residency at Stratford Road Elementary. “They can help get the acts ready to go.”
Renaldo performs a full range of skills that include a boomerang act, juggling and balancing on a hoverboard while performing with devil sticks.
Beekhuizen takes great joy in sharing the laughter and performing for students.
“This is my time to just bring them joy and happiness,” she said. “This is two hours, and they sit and relax and they have joy and laughter.”