- January 20, 2023
After school, many students have extracurricular activities. When the bell rings at the end of the day, some of them lace up their sneakers and hit the basketball court; others head to football practice. In Sarasota, some of them spend the rest of their afternoon walking the high wire under the big top.
For more than 65 years, the Sailor Circus, a division of the Circus Arts Conservatory, has been entertaining audiences and training local students through daily after-school practices to build each student’s circus routine. Each year, approximately 110 students, in grades 4 through 12, train with the circus to learn the circus arts and to put on a show each semester.
Welcoming each of the student clowns, tumblers, acrobats, and wire-walkers-in-training is a staff of 30 coaches including Emily Wyatt and Karen Bell, program assistant and education manager, respectively, at the Circus Arts Conservatory.
Bell, Wyatt and the coaching staff have a lot of to accomplish in the next few weeks. With Sailor Circus’ annual Holiday Celebration show opening Dec. 26 and running for seven performances through Dec. 29, Bell and Wyatt must put the finishing touches on a show the students have been training for since August. It’s Wyatt and Bell’s job to take 14 different routines and more than 100 students and combine them into one cohesive show. And even though their role is exclusively behind the scenes, Bell and Wyatt’s influence reaches as high as any high-wire act.
The duo are not only ready to teach the students the art of circus, but, also how to be strong, confident and good people.
“The students learn a lot of life lessons here that they’ll take on with them once they graduate from the circus,” says Wyatt. “From performing and learning the circus arts they gain self-esteem, responsibility, trust and dedication.”
The afternoon begins with Wyatt, Bell and a few of the other coaches gathering the students around for a pre-practice huddle. The team itself is the size of a small school. The students sitting on rows of chairs have stopped chatting, checking their phones, and ceased working on their homework. It’s time to listen.
Wyatt and Bell share with the students the plan for that afternoon’s practice. In the next three-and-a-half hours, until about 8 p.m., the students will rehearse every play, movement and routine at least three times. After Wyatt and Bell count attendance, the students disperse to get started.
“What I love about (the circus) is the combination of the athletics and the art form,” Bell says. “You’re able to meld these really interesting pieces of music and costumes, all the while working with really interesting people and students.”
Wyatt and Bell are no strangers to circus life. Wyatt was in the circus. She, along with her two older sisters, joined Sailor Circus when Wyatt was 8. She says that, unlike her other friends growing up, who pursued softball or tennis, she got to run away every afternoon to the circus. After attending State College of Florida, Wyatt began volunteering at the circus’ summer programs and realized that she was happiest when she was working with the students.
Bell, originally from Colorado, has been a clown for 30 years. She caught the circus bug in 1985, after attending the Ringling Brothers Clown College in Venice. She joined the Circus Arts Conservatory in 2004 and started managing the Circus Arts Conservatory's education program in 2011.
While they still get to perform every so often, now it’s Wyatt and Bell’s job to produce a show out of the students’ acts. They, along with the rest of the volunteer coaching staff, work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the school year to write, plan rehearsals and prepare that semester’s production.
Armed with a PA system and a microphone, Wyatt leads the students through the different moments of the show while Bell looks on and makes sure each section of students — ringleaders, clowns, acrobats and aerialists — are in the right place at the right time, always keeping a watchful eye for timing, placement and, of course, performance quality.
“We want all the elements to work so the audience can connect with the acts, the music and the show,” says Wyatt. “The production team writes the whole show and then we look at it and see what music and act fits the written show. At this point, we have time. If something doesn’t feel right for the students or we think the audience won’t connect, we make a change.”
Leaping, running and clowning around on the floor of the Sailor Circus arena among the crowds of Sarasota students are high school students who have spent multiple years at Sailor Circus. For some of them, this will be their fourth or fifth holiday show. The high schoolers acts as Wyatt and Bell’s point people under the big top to make sure the younger, less-experienced performers have everything prepared for opening night.
Lillian Hafner, a high-wire walker from Pine View School and Kevin Moore, an acrobat from Sarasota High School, have each spent a combined eight years performing at Sailor Circus. Coaches like Wyatt and Bell look to them to help lead and manage some of the younger students who are performing for the first time in front of an audience.
“Starting off at a young age it seems intimidating when you first get here,” says Hafner, “but when you realize that you’re doing it with all your friends who you trust, it never seems scary.”
The years of almost daily practice are evident as the older students work with the younger ones. Hafner, Moore and Leonard help all of the younger students in their section. Whether that’s by double checking their section’s pre-show preparations like costumes and entrance timing to one more practice on that series of group back flips, they are slowly growing into being coaches themselves.
“Each year it’s cool when new kids come in and you can help them out,” says Moore. “Since you’ve seen every problem or difficulty in the act, it’s easier to help them learn it. As I’ve gotten older in the circus, it gets easier for me, but the best thing is that I get to teach as well, which is a lot of fun.”
Fun, flips and flying in mid-air are Sailor Circus’ main attractions for families who attend the troupe’s show every semester. But it’s what the audience doesn’t see where the real transformation happens. For coaches Wyatt and Bell, that’s watching the students learn and grow not just as performers, but as people — that’s the real joy.
“By the time they graduate, a lot of kids feel like this program is their second home and that we’re a family,” says Wyatt. “We spend a lot of time here, some up to 15 hours a week. They do their homework here, eat dinner here, we spend a lot of time together. We’ve just transformed into a family over time.”