You wouldn’t have known Gamma Phi Circus performed just days before in front of millions of people if you had attended practice Monday night in Horton Field House. The troupe wasn’t reveling in its appearance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Illinois State students were back at work already preparing for their next event.

“We’ve got a holiday show this Friday, so we have no time to waste,” said Circus Director Marcus Alouan ’01, M.S. ’11.

Alouan and Circus Artistic Director Ivan Stoinev led 16 Gamma Phi members on a trip to New York City last week that culminated in a performance at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The nation’s oldest collegiate circus had been invited to participate in the parade to mark the troupe’s 90th anniversary.

Gamma Phi accompanied 2019 Emmy Award-winner Billy Porter and Coach’s Rexy in the City float at an event that drew 3.5 million attendees and over 20 million TV viewers.

“It couldn’t have gone better,” Alouan said. “Some of the best things that I get to do is watch the students experience these things. It was unforgettable for me. We even got to share Thanksgiving dinner with Big Apple Circus. Overall, the students got to see so many amazing sites throughout New York.”

Gamma Phi was only the second circus, after Cirque Du Soleil, to actually perform on the Macy’s star in Herald Square, Alouan said. For 90 seconds, the troupe took center stage for a national television audience.

Gamma Phi Circus posing with Billy Porter at the parade. Gamma Phi Circus in front of the Coach float at Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade “(Porter) is a larger than life character for sure,” Marcus Alouan said. “We did see him at the rehearsal for our first run through. And then he was there for the parade and we were able to get a couple of shots with him.” (Photo courtesy of Coach and by Alyssa Greenberg)

Gamma Phi Circus poses with Billy Porter at the parade. “(Porter) is a larger than life character for sure,” Marcus Alouan said. “We did see him at the rehearsal for our first run through. And then he was there for the parade, and we were able to get a couple of shots with him.” (Photo courtesy of Coach and by Alyssa Greenberg)

Despite some concerns about high winds ahead of the parade, the weather was perfect, and the crowd was enthusiastic, Alouan said.

“It was probably a little bit over three miles from where we started to where we finished. The streets were just completely lined with people,” Alouan said. “People were yelling, ‘Illinois State.’ There clearly were alumni that were there to cheer us on. It was a fantastic atmosphere.”

Attendees included President Larry Dietz and his wife, Marlene, who were right in front of Macy’s when Gamma Phi was performing.

Junior Nick Balk was among the students who went on the trip. He has been doing circus since 2009 when he attended his first Gamma Phi camp and now captains two acts.

Balk said the highlight of the parade was entertaining children along the route: “Just making a little kid smile by singling one kid out and waving to him or giving him a high-five. You would do that, and that kid would just light up.”

Balk also enjoyed the opportunity to see the Big Apple Circus perform live.

“Circus is my passion, and Big Apple Circus is one of the best circuses in the world, and watching them perform and being welcomed into their home on Thanksgiving was truly something incredible,” said Balk, a special education major.

During the week, the students also got the chance to see the Circus Hermanos Vazquez, Broadway shows, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Statue of Liberty.

“The whole week was incredible,” said Gamma Phi President Sophie Remmert, a senior music education and vocal performance major. “It went by way too fast, but it was just so great.”

One of the highlights for Remmert was the costume fitting on November 25: “That’s when it really hit us, ‘Wow, we’re here. This is really happening.’ Afterwards the costume designer told us that out of over 4,000 people who have costumes for the parade, we were the only people to get a fitting. Just because our float was so big and brand new this year they really wanted us to look our best, make sure we were safe in the costumes that we had, and everything was fitting properly.”

Gamma Phi carefully coordinated its performance with NBC TV directors. Stoinev took the lead in creating the act and negotiating what props the circus could use. Gamma Phi ended up including dancers, jugglers, the Russian bar act, and acrobats.

“I know what we were looking for and what they were looking for,” Stoinev said. “We did some last-minute tweaks and changes, but it did work out perfectly for both sides. I’m very happy with the way it came out.”

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Stoinev had participated in the parade several times as a member of the Big Apple Circus.

“The Big Apple Circus used to walk the parade. But just walk. We never performed live on the main square. So that was a dream come true.”

Performing in the parade was different for Gamma Phi than what the troupe does at its annual shows at Redbird Arena. Parade organizers limited Gamma Phi to 16 participants from a troupe of about 130 and ruled out several props, like unicycles, that are normally part of the show.

Gamma Phi stayed at the West Side YMCA near Central Park. Some of the members had to wake up as early as 2:30 a.m. the day of the parade and be ready by 5 a.m. for their shuttle to the float lineup.

“The night before was rough,” said Stoinev. “None of them could sleep from emotion. And they needed to wake up for makeup and all be ready by five. But they handled it truly as professionals. And I said it many times. I’m so proud of that group who came.”

The students had to put in months of extra practices to prepare for the parade. They also rehearsed on Herald Square the Tuesday night before the big event.

“These students were just fantastic, dedicated, and hardworking, but also flexible with changes because there was change after change after change,” said Alouan.

Remmert said she wasn’t nervous about performing before millions of people.

“I think I was just more excited than nervous. I think the whole route of the parade was kind of calming because I was just waving. I was having the time of my life, and then we got to the star, and we’re like, ‘We’re already here!’ It went so fast,” she said.

The students came away with buttons showing that they were Macy’s Parade participants, commemorative pins, and lifelong memories. The group was very thankful to the donors who funded a Hatch campaign launched in support of the trip.

“I just want to thank the donors for everything,” Remmert said. “I think that had it not been for that funding maybe not all of us would have had the opportunity that we did.”