It was hard to understand, at first:

Somehow Ixchel Laurrari and the other blind or limited-vision kids were gasping, clapping and sometimes laughing their heads off as they sat in the audience of the Big Apple Circus.

Ixchel, 7, of Lorton can only see a little, but was able to describe her favorite parts later as if she had seen it all clearly.

"I liked it when they got wet, when he hid the bucket but then it spilled all over him," she said, describing a funny performer who keeps trying to sneak up and drench another character with water and gets soaked himself.

How did Ixchel know what was happening?

She listened to a description of the action through a headset. Like radio announcers doing the play-by-play for a ballgame, two men described what was going on. The wireless headsets she and others wore picked up their broadcast.

What Ixchel and more than 800 other kids had just experienced was a special performance for kids with limited hearing or vision. Autistic children and kids who speak little English also attended.

The show had everything that has made the 20-year-old, New York-based Big Apple popular -- clowns, Mongolian trapeze artists, a man juggling five ping-pong balls with his mouth, a fluffy cat leaping off a 20-foot-high platform onto a red pillow.

But this "Circus of the Senses" performance was specially designed for kids who might not otherwise be able to experience a circus. The show was shorter than usual, the aisles extra-wide for wheelchairs, and sign language interpreters were posted around the room.

James Johnson, 10, of Dale City can't see well, so he took in the circus through his other senses. From a voice in the headset, he learned that Grandma the clown was "really shaking it" and that "she's actually a man!"

After the show, James and others were allowed into the ring. He got to touch the soft, fluffy daredevil cat and smell the earthy odor of a miniature horse. When one of the pigeon performers fluttered by, someone guided James's ears to the sound: "Listen, that's the bird's wings flapping!"

-- Fern Shen

Billy Huettner listens to a description of the action under the big top.Top: Marina Barros and Cindy Basquez pet the show dogs. Above: Carra and Lauren Tompach applaud.Svetlana Shamsheeva performs her feathers-and-feline act.