When 19-year-old Carlos Guity sprints out under the Big Apple circus big top and does a series of double back somersaults and flips each night, he is fulfilling a dream from his South Bronx childhood.
As one of two black members of a troupe of circus performers, the acrobat and tumbler sees himself as a symbol of all those from rough-and-tumble neighborhoods who have beaten the odds.
"A lot of people don't realize there's a lot of talent in these neighborhoods, not just crimes or drugs," he said.
As one of hundreds of inner-city youths recruited for a Big Apple training program that began in 1979, Guity stuck with it for 11 years and became the first circus school graduate to be hired as a regular performer.
Seeing friends from his old neighborhood get into trouble with crack cocaine only fueled Guity's drive to succeed, he said.
"You see people you've known through the years get hooked on crack and you see them falling apart," he said. "For me, watching them gave me more motivation to stick with this and set goals."
Guity also found something special in the circus that helped him to succeed where others failed.
"I liked it more than the other kids," he recalled. "I liked the idea of going to the circus and seeing something that looks impossible--but knowing that if you keep working at it, you can do it."
Guity, who joined the circus school at age 8, spent six years perfecting the double back flip, his most difficult move.
"Any normal kid would probably say, 'I don't want to do this any more,' " he said, "but I think the best things come to people who wait."
His career suffered a setback four years ago, when Big Apple acrobat and aerialist Phil Beder fell while performing on a rotating ladder and was left a quadriplegic.
"I owe everything to him," said Guity. "He's motivated me, physically and emotionally, to this day."
Guity, who has avoided serious injury, says he will stick with ground performances and isn't interested in aerial work.
He is interested in accounting, though, and is studying at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he is a sophomore. When it's time to retire from tumbling, he'd like to stay with the circus as an accountant. He already works part time in that capacity for Big Apple's corporate offices.
Now, with the circus leaving New York for a tour, Guity is torn between staying in school and going on the road.
He says he doesn't want to neglect his studies, but the more he performs with the circus, the more he likes it.
"They're very friendly here," he said. "The circus is one place where it's like a family. There's no discrimination. Everyone just wants to work together to put on a good show."