Vibrant characters of various shapes and sizes fly through a metallic dome while moving with physical prowess and balletic grace. This isn’t a sequence from a fantastical daydream or some silver-screen illusion; it’s Sailor Circus Academy students maneuvering through the arena on the corner of Bahia Vista Street and South Tamiami Trail.
The circus is one of the oldest family-oriented entertainments in the country. But as the traveling circus business model waned in popularity, the resident circus school has grown. According to Pedro Reis, founder and CEO of the Circus Arts Conservatory, when he emigrated from South Africa to the United States in 1984, there were approximately four schools in the United States dedicated to the circus arts.
Today there are more than 100 schools and institutions that teach circus performance.
“In the past, there were families that passed down their craft and skills within their family from generation to generation,” says Reis. “Now the general student body of any given town with a circus academy can learn them.”
The Circus Arts Conservatory and its Sailor Circus Academy annually recruit and train dozens of kids between fourth and 12th grade to produce quality circus spectaculars. This is big time under the big top.
“Sailor Circus Academy is over 60 years old, and we don’t evaluate students based on their age but on their ability,” says Reis. “Our degree of difficulty and our standards are pretty high and as close to professional as you can get.”
No matter what age students begin their studies at the academy, everyone starts with the basics of the academy’s exotic-sounding disciplines such as silks, the Spanish web, side-by-side, the flying trapeze, unicycle and the storied Nik Wallenda high wire.
As students progress they are cast in various roles, based on their respective strengths, in the Sailor Circus’s winter holiday and spring shows. And for those who fully embrace the training, the circus becomes much more.
“For me, circus is family,” says Alli Pierce, an 11th-grade aerialist student of the Sailor Circus. “I spend more time here than my actual home.”
This familiarity and closeness is evident during an early run-through of Sailor Circus’s winter show, “The Enchanted Wand.” Pierce and the menagerie of circus students run into the center of the arena’s stage with complete comfort, hitting their marks and climbing, contorting and launching themselves into poses and routines that would make an origami artist envious.
“Whenever I tell someone I know that I perform in the circus, they always ask if I’m a clown and can I juggle,” says Pierce. “They aren’t aware of any of the other acts or major things that are a part of the circus.”
For the younger students, such as fourth-grader Emma Clarke, who is in her first year at the academy, it’s about learning and having as much fun as possible.
“I was involved in acrobatics, but the circus academy looked really fun,” Emma says. “At first it felt weird having people watch me perform, but it felt really good to do it and hear their applause.”
The Sailor Circus’s large productions reflect the program’s fusion of education and entertainment. “The Enchanted Wand” was conceived from a brainstorming session with Reis and the rest of the artistic and directing staff who aim to deliver a show that is always an original concept with an equally positive message. Running from Dec. 27 to Dec. 30, the basic story is of three dysfunctional children who received a magic wand from the Fairy Queen. The only way the powerful wand can function is when the three children settle their differences and work together.
Teamwork, entertainment and a dash of wonder are at the heart of every Sailor Circus performance.
“I want the audience for my first show to feel happy and just laugh,” Emma says. “I just want to make someone’s day.”
IF YOU GO
‘The Enchanted Wand’
When: Dec. 27 through Dec. 30
Where: Sailor Circus Arena, 2075 Bahia Vista St.
Tickets: $18 for adults, $12 for children 12 years old and under
Info: Call 355-9335 or visit circusarts.org.