For Teen, Life In Circus Is a Balancing Act

By Wendi Kaufman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 22, 2006

Running away to join the circus was never an option for Christian Atayde Stoinev. At 14, he's the youngest performer in the Big Apple Circus and is no stranger to life under the big top; he first stepped into the center ring at the ripe old age of 5.

"I stood on my father's shoulders," Stoinev says of his debut appearance nine years ago. In that act, his father balanced them both on an unsupported ladder.

Today Stoinev has his own spotlight. A self-described acrobat, he has become well-known for his hand-balancing -- which is exactly what it sounds like, balancing on one hand or, as in Stoinev's case, one finger, which even he admits is a pretty rare feat.

You can catch Stoinev's act when the Big Apple Circus rolls into Dulles Town Center this week, the first stop on its 11-month, 11-city tour. The new show, "Step Right Up!," is set in the golden era of amusement parks, complete with barkers, arcades, rides, ragtime melodies and a host of sideshow attractions, which are sure to include acrobats, aerialists, clowns and jugglers. But don't expect lions, tigers or bears. Only domesticated animals appear in this one-ring circus.

The circus is in Stoinev's blood: His father, Ivan, left Bulgaria at 13 to join Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. His mother, Maritza Atayde, is a former aerialist whose family owns Circo Atayde Hermanos, Mexico's oldest and biggest circus; Stoinev is a fifth-generation circus performer on her side. Both parents now hold administrative jobs with the Big Apple Circus.

Stoinev will tell you that circus life is pretty normal: He studies, does homework, plays Xbox and practices. But how many 10th-graders perform nightly feats of dexterity that can make a mother bite her nails.

"I know he'll be fine, but sometimes I still worry," Atayde says.

In this latest show, Stoinev plays a boy visiting an old-time amusement park. The role calls for him to balance on a unicycle that is more than five feet tall. It's all part of a normal day, Stoinev explains, though he admits he's excited to perform at the Dulles premiere. He says he is looking forward to the new season and the new role. Though a veteran performer, this show-business kid is far from jaded.

"There's a feeling, an excitement when you go out onstage that never goes away. Every time you go on, it feels like stepping into a different world; you just feel like, 'Wow, so many people are watching me.' It's cool."

For Stoinev, weekdays call for a strict schedule of practices and performances, with his mother close by, making sure he gets enough sleep and eats properly. While on the road for the next 11 months, his family will live in a circus trailer and travel to major cities across the country. After the tour, they will return home to Orlando, where they spend about one month a year.

"I love to travel, to see new places and visit new cities," Stoinev says. "It's been great to see so much of the country."

He is very excited about the Dulles location; the circus will be pitching its tent in the shadow of the suburban shopping mall. Shopping for cool clothes and sneakers are on this teenager's to-do list while he's in the area, along with seeing the sights.

Adult life may seem pretty tame after growing up in the circus, but Stoinev's plans for the future include college and playing college sports. He would like to study communications, and after that he'll think about career plans. Will he run away and join the corporate world?

Anything is possible, he says. But for now, he's a busy teenager, enjoying the challenge of balancing life's daily demands -- with one hand tied behind his back.

Big Apple Circus Dulles Town Center 703-573-7328 Through Oct. 9

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