Mary Jane Uzzi takes a practice spin on her unicycle.
In most towns, seeing even one kid on a unicycle would probably make you do a double take. And it would be hard not to stare if you saw a whole bunch of them. But in Scarborough, it's kind of a thing.
"On this, it's really important to keep your weight on the seat so you don't fall. Like I just did. Almost. It's much easier to go fast!" says Sam Curtis, who is 11. And he's riding around the gym on a giraffe - a 6-foot unicycle, aptly nicknamed for being tall and thin.
All around the gym, there are kids speeding around on one wheel. Some, like Sam, are 6 feet in the air. Others are a bit closer to the ground. They range in age from 8 to 18. And they love to point out what others can do.
"Robbie, this is his second year in Gym Dandies, he's better than, like, everyone," says Sam Curtis. "He can ride with one foot on the giraffe. Show her!"
"They motivate each other," says Jon Cahill (right, giving Mary Jane Uzzi a hand), who started the program. "You know, often a child'll see an adult do something and they figure, 'Well, he's an adult, he can do it.' But when they see another boy or girl their age do these kinds of things, then they realize it's possible."
For Cahill, that is what makes the program special. Not the fact that he's got hundreds of kids in Scarborough riding unicycles that are taller than they are - and juggling, and walking on moving globes, and walking on moving globes WHILE juggling.
For him, it's more about the fact that there's always something new for the kids to learn, to practice and to master - and that they encourage each other along the way. "They're all trying to progress together, and improve together. And it has this multiplication effect," he says.
Cahill started the program in 1981, with 10 kids and a box of tennis balls. Now, the group draws between 150 and 200 kids a year. The ones who stick with it and master certain skills are eligible to perform with the group at schools and parades in town, around Maine, and, sometimes, out of state.
Mary Jane Uzzi has been in the Gym Dandies since third grade. At 11, she's a little short for her age, but she hops on and off a 6-foot unicycle like it's nothing.
Samantha Fields: "Can you show me how to get up on that thing and ride around?"
Mary Jane Uzzi: "Uh huh. So I need to go over to a mat or a wall where I can grab onto it. Still walking (laughs.) You kind of just put your unicycle against the wall, and put it, like, in a position where the pedals are even. You put one foot up and jump onto it. And put the first pedal on. And then you pretty much - I'm on it now. And you just ride around.""
Once she's up there, she looks entirely at home, bobbing around so far above the ground. But for someone who's never ridden a unicycle before, one very important question remains:
Samantha Fields: "How do you get down from that thing?"
Mary Jane Uzzi: "Well, you hold onto the front of the seat. And then you kinda just jump down backwards and then the wheel shoots out in front of you."
She makes it look easy. So do a lot of the kids in the gym. But they all say it took lots and lots of practice.
Now that she's at home on the giraffe, Mary Jane is looking for another challenge. She's got her sights set on learning to ride a two-wheeled unicycle - where one wheel is on top of the other. To get it to move forward, you have to peddle backward. Only a couple kids out of the 200 or so who are in the Gym Dandies have mastered it so far.
"I never learned that one," Cahill says. "I'd never even attempt it!"
Mary Jane, along with Sam Curtis and 40 other kids from the Gym Dandies, will be riding a 6-foot giraffe in the Inaugural Parade in January. Though the Dandies have ridden in some pretty big parades before - including the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2005 - Jon Cahill says this is the experience of a lifetime.
"It's just a tremendous honor to be able to take my kids to Washington, D.C. to be in this event," he says. "I mean, I don't think it's possible to top this, really. How many kids get to ride a 6-foot unicycle down Pennsylvania Avenue, with 40 other kids in any inauguration parade?
The honor is not lost on the kids. At 9, Allison Derrick is one of the youngest Gym Dandies to be riding in the parade.
"I'm really excited about it," she says. "And my ice skating coach, she couldn't even believe it. She's like, what the??? It'll be really cool to ride right by the president."
Mary Jane Uzzi is excited, too. To ride by both the President and the First Lady.
"I've always been into politics, and I always ask about big historical events," she says. "And this is, like, one of my dreams. I wrote to Michelle Obama last year and I told her all about this, so if she could connect the two, that would be amazing."
Whether or not she connects the dots, it'll be hard for the First Lady to miss the Gym Dandies. Forty-two kids gliding down Pennsylvania Avenue on one wheel, sitting tall and proud and comfortable, six feet above the ground.
Photos by Samantha Fields.