SCARBOROUGH – Balancing on 6-foot-high unicycles and riding four abreast, the students floated eerily around the Scarborough High School parking lot Saturday morning like a flock of giant herons.
Despite the early hour — the sun hadn’t yet risen — and the icy conditions, the 40 or so pedalers in the Gym Dandies Children’s Circus moved in synchronized formation. The students, ranging from fourth graders to high school seniors, were practicing for their appearance in the Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21.
Fifty years from now, they will still be talking about it to their grandchildren, predicted Jon Cahill, director of the group.
” ‘I rode a 6-foot unicycle, with 42 other kids on 6-foot unicycles, down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House where the president and his family were sitting.’ I mean, it doesn’t get more special than that,” said Cahill.
Earning a chance to appear in the inaugural parade isn’t easy. The Gym Dandies were among only 47 groups from across the country, out of 2,807 applicants, to win a spot. Cahill said someone had contacted the parents of one of the riders, wondering whether the group would be a good fit for the parade. Cahill then had four days to gather the materials for the elaborate application process, which involved producing a video and a narrative.
Cahill, a retired physical education teacher, founded the group as an after-school juggling club 30 years ago. One day a member brought his unicycle, hoping Cahill could teach him to ride. From there the group snowballed. Since then about 3,500 children in grades three through 12 have participated.
Cahill said his group’s resume didn’t hurt its application to ride in the inaugural parade. The Gym Dandies have appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade and the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of regional parades in New England.
With only a two- to three-week window until they received a response to their application, group members had to start planning immediately. A passport photo and detailed information had to be submitted for each child. Reservations had to be made for bus transportation and two nights in hotels. A contingent of parents willing to help reseat fallen riders and carry the banner had to be found.
And when they learned the good news the week before Christmas, it left no time to fundraise, so parents will be footing the bill, which is about $200 to $300 per child.
The parents said the cost is worth it.
“This is a big to-do,” said Cathy Fitzgerald.
Her son, Sean, 17, has been a Gym Dandie since the third grade, following in his brother’s footsteps. Sean said he stuck with it because it is so different from other extracurricular activities.
“It’s fun and unique,” he said.
Garrett Kelley, a fellow performer and high school senior, said the Gym Dandies also gives them the opportunity to travel. He said he isn’t nervous about the inaugural parade.
“After doing it for nine years, you get used to it,” Kelley said.
Robbie Panta, 10, who is in his second year with the group, will be among the riders who lead the group and who both juggle and pedal.
Cahill said Robbie is one of the most driven performers in the group, practicing for hours every day. Cahill said pedaling a unicycle is extremely difficult, especially while simultaneously juggling.
“They have to persevere. It’s a real ego boost to get to the next level,” Cahill said.
The group will be wearing its signature white, blue and black uniforms with red scarves. They have to be ready for any weather condition. If it is too rainy or snowy, they will be pushing their unicycles, not pedaling. Cahill will be issuing directions and encouragement to the troupe on his bullhorn,
Allison Derrick, 9, will be the youngest unicyclist in the parade.
She said her big worry isn’t the big crowds watching her or even the presence of President Obama.
“It’s the potholes,” said Allison.
Cahill said he expects Jan. 21 to be emotional day as the children make their way down the 1.5-mile route, taking part in a tradition that dates back to the first presidential inauguration of George Washington in 1789.
“These are all Scarborough kids. I will get choked up,” Cahill said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: