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CASEY — Laura Ernst performed her death-defying act during the 26th anniversary of the Casey Popcorn Festival on Monday.

Ernst, a juggler, acrobat and aerialist from Iowa, dazzled the popcorn fest crowd by jumping over a trio of audience members in a human-sized hamster ball, juggling fire and even hanging upside down 25 feet from the ground in a portable aerial rig.

“I’m always on the lookout for things that I can juggle with or flip myself upside down in,” Ernst said.

For seven years Ernst has been perfecting her craft, which all started when she was required to juggle clubs during a junior high school play.

After junior high, Ernst continued to juggle, which led her to winning first place at the World Juggling Federation during college and then to an appearance on the fifth season of “America’s Got Talent.”

“There is so much I love about this job,” Ernst said. “I love traveling and meeting new people.”

Having a desk job after college as a graphic designer lasted about four months for Ernst. She said she knew she wanted to do something more exciting with her life than sit behind a desk.

“I have never been one of those people who could sit still, which makes this job perfect for me,” Ernst said.

Traveling all over the United States and the world, performing sometimes as many as 20 shows in one week, is a career Ernst said she can see herself doing for years to come, but at the same time it is evolving.

In December Ernst said she plans to open a circus studio in Iowa and teach there.

“I want to start a family soon with my husband,” Ernst said. “I see myself in this industry for the rest of my life, but that will change when I get older and I’m not able to do as much as I can now.”

Ernst said her favorite part of performing is being able to meet people from all walks of life and being looked at as a role model.

“I enjoy when little girls come up to me and say they want to be just like me when they grow up,” Ernst said. “There aren’t a lot of females who do what I do so I love to be able to empower people.”

Cassie McMeen, 13, of Springfield said she wasn’t scared when she was picked as one of the three audience members that Ernst jumped over in her human-sized hamster ball on Monday.

“The trick looked really interesting and I wanted to see if she could do it,” McMeen said. “I thought it was really cool that she could jump right over without even touching us.”

This was the first time McMeen had seen Ernst perform, but she isn’t a stranger to the popcorn festival, which she attends every year.

“I love all the different shows and vendors,” McMeen said.

For Carl and Jonilee Wright of Hymera, Ind., the Casey Popcorn Festival is good old-fashioned family fun, to which they brought their great-grandchildren for the first time on Monday.

“We enjoy the festival, especially the shows,” Jonilee Wright said. “The variety of shows is something you don’t see at most fairs.”

Although the couple drove an hour and a half to attend the festival, they both agreed that the time on the road was well worth it to be able to spend time with their great-grandkids.

“We were babysitting them anyway so we decided to take them to the fair,” Carl Wright said. “We enjoy taking them to a lot of different places.”

Contact Bilharz at or 217-238-6839.


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