Circus kids -- The Ringling Bros' Children of the Rainbow features 43 child-stars ages 4 to 17

They work in high places, travel a lot, and ride elephants and buffalos. The youngest is 4, the oldest 17. They hang out with lion tamers, contortionists, and clowns every day. They come from all over the globe. Some of them haven’t mastered enough English to pronounce the words Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but for the next year and a half, that’s what they’ll call home.

They are the 43 child-stars of Ringling Bros.’ new attraction, the Children of the Rainbow, gathered from not so near and very far to celebrate 200 years of circuses in America. ”We’ve had children perform before, but not in such large numbers,” says vice president Tim Holst. ”We wanted a program that would show people what children can accomplish and inspire other kids to do their best.”

So Holst began searching for eclectic young talent, and found it in such far-flung places as China, Paris, Moscow, and Mongolia. Two of the kids Holst discovered, Bai Jie, 12, and Shuai Xi, 9, members of China’s Kunming Troupe, wiggle their way into and out of narrow barrels while standing on their hands, | and sometimes on each other. Nevada natives Lianna Ashton Hay, 10, and her 9- year-old brother, Miles, get tossed and juggled on their father’s feet; they are the family’s eighth generation to perform in the glow of the footlights. Both Youlia Kolossova, 11, and Olga Pikhienko, 13, trained for their airborne acrobatics as toddlers in Russia. And the Chicago Kidz, nine street tumblers ages 12 to 17, learned to flip and leap and whirl on Windy City asphalt.

So what’s it like for these kids to spend their days in a sequins-and-sawdust setting, a Las Vegas-meets-the zoo atmosphere? For one thing, life in the circus doesn’t mean they get to skip school. The circus gang spends 2.5 hours a day in a portable classroom learning reading and math from four teachers and two interpreters.

But not all the lessons are learned in the classroom. ”I try to teach them to stay positive, not to hold themselves back because something didn’t go the way they wanted it to go,” says Paul Canada, the Kidz’ 23-year-old trainer and coach. ”I try to show them that life goes on after the circus.”

For 16-year-old Chicago Kidz performer Tim Shaw, who grew up in the tough Cabrini-Green housing project, being tapped by the circus was an opportunity to begin a new life. ”I was surprised,” he says shyly. ”I mean, The Greatest Show On Earth called me.”