Bailey Sloan and Dolly Jacobs, a ringmistress and aerialist in the Sailor Circus’ Summer Circus Spectacular, help each other face two different challenges
The Ringling is known for its images of world-class art, gardens and architecture. But in the lobby this Friday afternoon, living circus performers greet overjoyed children and parents. The smiling faces of children light up the lobby while getting their pictures taken with the cast of the Circus Arts Conservatory’s Summer Circus Spectacular.
Two of those performers are Bailey Sloan and Dolly Jacobs. Sloan, the circus's ringmistress, comes from a family of 10 generations of circus performers. She is the bejeweled master of ceremonies who leads the show and introduces the various highflying acts. One of those acrobatic acts is Jacobs, a Sarasota institution with decades of experience in various circus companies. She co-runs the Circus Arts Conservatory with her husband, Pedro Reis, who have run the circus education organization since 1997.
Sloan and Jacobs have known each other since Sloan was 10 years old, when she quit the swim team to find another after-school activity. Jacobs, who teachers nearly 100 elementary, middle and high school students, says that students who join the Circus Arts Conservatory as something fun to do rarely graduate to a leading role within the company.
But Sloan discovered her penchant for the ringmaster role during her junior year of high school during a Sailor Circus production of the "Polar Express." Jacobs said that was the moment she saw the real Sloan.
"The first time I heard her speaking on the microphone in the arena she had this incredible self-confidence and contact with everyone in the audience," says Jacobs.
Over the years the teacher/student relationship has morphed into something much more: family. During the run of the current production of the Summer Circus Spectacular, Sloan and Jacobs spend their free time backstage at the Historic Asolo Theater talking, sharing stories, playing cards and helping each other getting into their shimmering costumes.
"We work and practice together and you're always there to help each other," says Jacobs. "We aren't like other performing companies. The circus is a family and meeting and working with a fellow circus performer for the first time is like finding a long lost friend."
Both circus mavens are celebrating two respective milestones. Sloan has just graduated from Sarasota High School and will be attending Florida State University in the fall. And, at the beginning of the month, Jacobs received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship for her lifetime achievements in the circus arts. She’ll be honored at an awards ceremony Oct. 1, in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress with her other peers. The fellowship also includes a $25,000 award.
“There are all these great artists who paved the way for me and Bailey,” says Jacobs. “I’m really accepting this fellowship on their behalf. They deserve this recognition, and I’m happy the entire circus industry is being recognized as national folk art and it's getting the recognition that it so deserves.”
Even though graduation is at least four years away, Sloan’s ultimate goal is to major in creative writing, rejoin a circus company and travel and write about the thousands of people who live under the big top. She hopes to publish an anthology series on the modern magic of the circus family she’s been a part of almost half of her life. This kind of confidence would seem out of the ordinary for a recent high school grad, but she cultivated her sense of self under the spotlight.
“It’s going to be weird without the circus in college, but the Sailor Circus has made me feel like I was part of something much larger than myself,” Sloan says.
But before the national recognition or the fiction circus anthology jumps from Sloan’s mind to the page, the children’s cheers and hugs await.
“My favorite part of the show is the meet and greet,” says Sloan. “The kids are truly genuine in their response and say, 'You’re pretty and amazing.' You just can’t buy that kind of feeling.”
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