- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 10, 2014

March Madness is over, but you still have another chance to see an amazing display of basketball skills — at the circus!

At 15, “Kip” Jones didn’t know a thing about riding unicycles when he found himself in a circus audition in the Bronx about 30 years ago.

But when he saw circus performers peddling those one-wheeled vehicles while playing basketball, the former gymnast was captivated.

“It was kind of a unique situation,” he says. “I was hanging out with a school friend of mine and tagged along during the audition. I fell in love with it.”

After a successful audition, Mr. Jones joined the King Charles Troupe — the basketball-playing unicyclers who are a top act in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. “The Greatest Show on Earth” propped up its big top Wednesday at the Patriot Center in Fairfax.

Gymnastics taught him the importance of flexibility and discipline, and Mr. Jones says that experience helped prepare him somewhat for his chosen profession. But playing basketball on while riding a unicycle required new skills he had to learn and master. He is now the troupe’s leader.

“[We] perfect a skill and make it our own. No one else can duplicate it the way we have done it,” Mr. Jones says.

Having performed in a wide array of arenas across the country while traveling with the circus over the past three decades, Mr. Jones says he is still amazed by the crowd’s reaction when the troupe performs its choreographed routines of comedy and athletics.

What’s more, he holds to the intentions and ideals of the troupe’s founder — Jerry King.

As the story goes, King sneaked into a Ringling Bros. show as a child in 1918, and was infatuated the moment he saw a unicycle balancing atop a tightrope.

In 1958, King taught his son, Charles, and other children in their South Bronx neighbor how to ride a unicycle as a sort of ad hoc community project. He wanted to teach them about discipline, direction and Christian principles through a skill King knew and loved — the unicycle.

“King was concerned with the circle of evil. He took his passion for the unicycle and taught his son,” Mr. Jones says.

The South Bronx unicycle club auditioned for Ringling Bros. 10 years later, and the King Charles Troupe became the first all-black circus act in 1969.

The troupe is unlikely to disappoint, even if you’ve seen the show before. The choreographed routines are planned in every detail, but unexpected things happen that make each performance unique.

“It’s probably 50-50,” Mr. Jones says of the troupe’s choreography and improvisation. “The ball takes a different bounce every time.”

When the basketball bounces off beat, they work to bring the act back together, and the crowd doesn’t seem to mind or notice when they get out of routine, he says.

In addition to basketball on unicycles, the audience can expect to see the funniest clowns on earth, as well as the Kiev Aerialist Enchantresses, the International Folklore Dancers, and the Trampoline Tower Tumblers.

“There are over 125 performers from all over the world under one roof,” Mr. Jones says

The circus’ “Built to Amaze” show highlights classic circus acts like acrobats and elephants. And ticket holders are encouraged to arrive early to take advantage of pre-show activities.

“An hour before the show we give the audience an opportunity to meet the performers on the floor,” Mr. Jones says.

A low wire is available for people to try the tightrope and get a sense of the agility and balance needed to walk (or cycle) a high wire, which is usually more than 50 feet in the air.

“They can try on wardrobes, and there’s even a circus tattoo station,” Mr. Jones says. “The audience can see animals from up to 10 feet away.”

If the behind-the-scenes and interactive experience is not enough enticement, early birds can have a chance to snag a free clown nose and marshmallows.

And a special contest gives participants the opportunity to win free Chik-fil-A sandwiches for a year if they guess the correct number of Chik-fil-A cows that are squeezed into a box.

If You Go

WHAT: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Built to Amaze”

WHERE: The Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va.

WHEN: Various times, now through April 20

COST: Prices range from $15 to $30 depending on seating. Inquire about a free ticket for “Baby’s First Circus.”

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