In 1999, Tim Shaw, a veteran of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, created an acrobatics team to provide a positive outlet for young people in the neighborhood. Today, the team draws aspiring performers from all over the Chicago area. Photo by Lucio Villa.

The gym sits on the city’s South Side, a few blocks from a local church, a few liquor stores and the 95th Street Red Line stop. Without stepping inside, hardly anyone would know it’s used for practicing trampoline stunts, jump-rope acrobatics and high-flips.

The city’s Robichaux Park gym is where the Chicago Boyz Acrobatic Team meets several times a week. During an evening practice session in January, coach Tim Shaw’s voice bounced off the walls: “Chest out. Always look up—straight ahead.” The only other sounds are from heavy breathing, shoeless feet running across the big blue mats and bodies landing from high jumps. The bass and energy of Shaw’s voice drown them out.

Shaw created the acrobatic team in 1999 to provide alternatives to the negative influences surrounding the neighborhood’s mostly African-American youth. The team, now with 15 members, is designed to promote education and discipline, and to teach them how to become “professionals,” Shaw said. These are values Shaw learned when he started taking acrobatic classes as a 4-year-old in his Englewood neighborhood.

Shaw, now 35, went on to spend five years as a professional acrobat for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Then he decided to devote his time teaching what he learned in his career.

Initially, the team met at Union Park on the West Side and attracted students from that area. It relocated to the Washington Heights neighborhood in 2010. The current location draws aspiring acrobats to auditions from all over Chicago, even from the suburbs. If they make the team, the young men have an opportunity to perform in wide-ranging venues—college half-time shows, parades and festivals. Like

Shaw, some of his former students have been recruited by Ringling Bros. and other well-known traveling acts.

Shaw recently sat down with The Chicago Reporter to talk about his acrobatic career.

How did you become interested in acrobatics?

I was always an active kid. I’m the baby of nine, so there was a lot of activity going on in our household. [We went to] the Sherwood Park district. That’s where you could go and learn how to play basketball, baseball, football. We did so many different sports, and I loved and excelled in all of them.

How can you relate to the youth you teach?

I lived in the same environment that they’re facing, and I realized that, if it wasn’t for me becoming a circus performer, my life probably would have been different as well. I lived in Englewood. I was surrounded by gangs, drugs, bums and peer pressure. For me that’s all I knew, and going into an environment like Ringling Bros.—leaving Chicago, moving to Florida, traveling around an entire country, just seeing professionals do professional things at professional jobs—was a real eye-opening experience into what I could really do with my life. That’s what opened the door for everything I’m doing right now.

What made you want to form the acrobatic team?

I wanted to change lives. Ringling Bros. changed my life and I wanted to help change the lives of the young men. Being a circus performer, enjoying and learning from the experience of traveling the world, becoming more confident in myself and working in a professional environment, [even] having the friends I’ve acquired—if that can happen to me, it would be great to give that experience to other young men. [I want] to give them more hope, give them things they can achieve and teach them how to get there.

What are you looking for in a team member?

We want guys who are actively athletic and into some acrobatic activity already. That tends to get the ball rolling. From there they have to come and audition. They have to show me what they’ve got. Sometimes we get kids who don’t have the ability, but we’ll work with them anyway because we see they can be developed. Sometimes they’ll get a little nervous because they think they can’t do the things that the guys can do now, but we’ll see something different and start to work with them.

And they have to maintain a C average?

Yes, C average. They have to pass [their classes]; they can’t drop out. We’re not looking for guys who are just trying to be performers. We do professional shows like circuses and television shows and fairs and festivals, and they will think, ‘OK, it’s only about performing.’ We understand everybody doesn’t want to go to college, but at least get a high school diploma. From there, you can become a full-time performer if you like, if the opportunity is there. We put nine guys from the City of Chicago in Ringling Bros. in 2005. One of the guys who performed in that group is now the mascot for the NBA Chicago Sky. Another of our performers is now on tour with the UniverSoul Circus.

How do the young men in the program change?

They all change when they get to high school. That is the biggest thing I notice. Some of them take a turn for the worse; some of them take a turn for the better. The ones who really stick with it learn a lot. They really become smarter, more confident, better in school, better in class. They know how to focus. Before they didn’t know how to focus; now they do. They know how to learn and accept good and bad criticism because being a performer opens you up to all of that—the good, the bad that people have to say about you, your own insecurities. It really opens all of that up and it makes that visible to you.

Some of your students come from troubled backgrounds. Do you have to treat them differently?

I just handle them the same way. I’m a tough coach and I’m going to tell it like it is. Most guys like that are typically just lost in some way or another. I understand them. I try to open their eyes to that, and it’s been pretty positive. Some guys really understand what I’m trying to tell them and how they can change their lives and make it better, and some of them don’t. The ones who don’t, I don’t worry about them.

I go to different seminars and symposiums. I take part in youth conferences all around the country. Most of the methods I have are from an educated standpoint. You can always go to something in the books to make sure you do it the right way. At the end of the day, it’s not your opinion; it’s what’s best for the youth [who are] involved. You want to make sure you’re giving them the best opinion that you can, in addition to the love and the care that you will give them.

How do you promote the team?

I am deeply rooted in the performer community here in Chicago so we get involved with the events and things going on in the city. We’re able to go into other areas where people can see us. We’ve been an acrobatic team for the Chicago Bulls since 2000, performing at 10 or more Bulls games every season, so I’ve been able to get the team out that way. I market the team to the places that we want to perform at.

A lot of people still see acrobatics as a white sport. Is that changing?

Even with the creation of the UniverSoul Circus, it still hasn’t installed a lot of interest in acrobatics or performing on that level. When I was a kid, my coaches were Russian. I had no black coaches at all until I joined Ringling, which [hired] an African-American male coach. You don’t really see them that much. Now you finally see them more in Chicago because of groups like mine. We were the second black group to successfully perform in Ringling Bros. behind the King Charles Troupe from New York City. Tumbling and acrobatics fall under gymnastics, and there are no gymnastic centers in any black neighborhood in Chicago. So, because of this, if you don’t live in the suburbs or North Side of Chicago, then you will not see any black participants. Also it’s expensive.

Have any of the boys ever gotten teased for being on the team?

No, they don’t really get teased. They actually get looked up to. When people see that they can do what they can do, they become really impressed. Their family, their friends, their schoolmates, their principals, when they see the ability of our young men, they are so impressed. Our guys, they actually think they’re little stars, and I have to humble them from time to time.