Lori Smith, a trainer for the Double 4 Lane act, watches as laughing and giggling kids climb, using each other as ladders to get to the top. Parents of child performers often sit in the stands and watch the practice.
Lori Smith, a trainer for the Double 4 Lane act, watches as laughing and giggling kids climb, using each other as ladders to get to the top. Parents of child performers often sit in the stands and watch the practice.Tina Leto
Lori Smith, a trainer for the Double 4 Lane act, watches as laughing and giggling kids climb, using each other as ladders to get to the top. Parents of child performers often sit in the stands and watch the practice.
A performer climbs a rope to reach the single trapeze, wearing last year's custom-made performance slippers. Performers are required to buy their own slippers, but they are re-used for practice. Circus personnel viewed this image as a testament to how hard all the young kids practice, how dedicated they are, and how frugal.
Performers fidget as they wait for their act to be called into the ring.
Josie Murphy, 13, ponders advice from her trainer on the flying trapeze while others await their turn to practice. For the most challenging acts, performers are selected earl, based on their potential and suitability.
Swinging ladders is an act performed by 8-10 year olds. Spotters control the speed of the swing and keep close watch over the young performers.
Chloe Williams, a junior clown, is being prepared for the first run-through practice performance in the week before July's circus opening. Although the main clown performers are adults, they are joined by two other groups: junior clowns and kiddie clowns (under 7 years old).
The circus building has a museum filled with circus artifacts, a testament to the circus troupes who wintered in Peru, Indiana. Some of the those early performers put down roots in Peru, buying homes, raising their families and preserving their circus heritage with the founding of the Peru Amateur Circus in 1959.
Emily Gipson practices her smile for 'Styles and Smiles', a competition between performers within the circus performance.
The corner of Main Street and Broadway in downtown Peru. Although there are rarely any animals in the circus performances, some animals are brought in to ride in the old circus wagons that come down Main Street for the parade that is held on the last day of Circus Week. Sometimes, they are brought by the Ringling Bros circus in Sarasota to participate in the Circus City Festival Parade.
Two 7 year old tumblers practice their act in the yard where performers gather and relax before the next act. They are closely guarded during the show by security volunteers and parents. While they wait the children play, hug, practice, forge friendships, and eat.
Tarrin Cooper moves across the high wire, blindfolded, at a road show in Reynolds, Indiana. She is the great granddaughter of Clyde Beatty, a lion tamer who made his home in Peru decades earlier.
The Saint Vincent DePaul Resale shop is located next door to the circus.
Colin Quinn and Hevin Smith are crowned King and Queen in a parade that brought the performers and circus royalty down Broadway Ave. to the doors of the circus building. Each year, the producers try to add something different such as a small parade, or having the ringmaster arrive on a elephant.
During a rainstorm, performers express concern about the flooding while waiting in the backlot area for their turn to enter the ring.
Lori Smith trains the tumbling acts. There are beginning, intermediate and advance acts, with sometimes up to 40 or 50 kids in the beginners group. They learn pretty quickly to not let their necklaces dangle while doing somersaults.
Teenagers, Britne Jo Bickel and Brittany Vincent perform in silks.
Josie Murphy, 13, rests between practice sessions. Josie is a third generation flying trapeze performer, one of a number of families whose participation spans generations. The following year she could no longer perform because basketball presented a scheduling conflict.
Lori Smith, a trainer for the Double 4 Lane act, watches as laughing and giggling kids climb, using each other as ladde
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Tina Leto
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How One Town in Indiana Became the Circus Capital of the World

Aug 17, 2016

Summertime in most American cities evokes visions of ice cream trucks, swimming pools, and summer camps. But in one small Indiana town, summertime is the season of the circus.

Peru, Ind., known as the Circus Capital of the World, has been home to the Peru Amateur Circus since 1960. Each summer, for eight days in July, 200 young people put on a show that transforms the town of about 11,000 residents into a spectacular festival, culminating with the Circus Heritage Parade.

Tina Leto, a photographer who visited the circus first as a child and revisited the scene periodically, says she remembers wondering, “why is this circus here?”

She set out in 2008 to find answers, discovering that the love of circus ran in the city's blood. Ben Wallace first brought his circus to the town in the late 1800s. He was followed by scores of traveling shows that established winter headquarters just southeast of Peru. The city was once so ubiquitous with the performances that, in the 1920s, Peru became known on maps as the “Circus City." But by the 1940s the circuit no longer wintered in Peru, favoring, instead, Florida.

In an attempt to revive its heritage, the city launched Circus City Days in the 1950s. By 1959, high school students were trained to perform a few acts that were so popular that the following year a circus tent was rented for the inaugural Peru Amateur Circus. Leto says the value of the circus transcends the staged acts, serving as a community center. "It’s this community that kind of grows up together."

No child is turned away from participating, as long as they are age seven to 21. "They’re not looking for just the talented who can shine—of course that is there," Leto says, "but everybody is allowed in." Some children come from generations of circus performers, carrying on a familial dynasty, at least at the community level. In one photograph, Tarrin Cooper walks a high wire during the occasional roadshow. She is the great granddaughter of famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty, who went from cleaning cages to owning his own show.

The circus is a vestige “from the halcyon days of the traveling circuses,” Leto says, noting a contrast between the jubilance of circus week and the local economic troubles. “It’s not vibrant. It’s suffering.”

While the summer liturgy is a spirited homage to the town’s past, it is fleeting. The borrowed exotic animals depart following a parade cameo; the ad hoc performers retreat to childhood; and the residents return to the struggling Midwestern town that is the subject of the Facebook page ‘Save Peru,’ dedicated to “promoting local businesses, history, events and the over all love for the town itself.”

But, the magic of the the summer spectacle will, it seems, tenaciously preserve the city's proud title as the Circus Capital of the World—even potentially taking their talent to the nation's capital, where the circus has been invited by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to perform at the National Mall next summer.

Tina Leto is a documentary photographer based in Chicago.

Chelsea Matiash is TIME’s Deputy Multimedia Editor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @ cmatiash.

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