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Sailor Circus Academy returns with 'Let It Snow' holiday show

The rich Sarasota tradition of the Sailor Circus Academy returns for another holiday show headlined by student performers.

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  • | 8:30 a.m. December 21, 2021
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The music is blaring, the lights are shining and the students are performing without a net.

It's just another day at the Sailor Circus Academy, an institution for seven decades in Sarasota, and a whole array of rehearsals are going on at the same time. There are kids attacking the trapeze, and some others flipping and somersaulting off a trampoline. Soon, some teenagers will take on the Roman Rings in front of one of the world's greatest practitioners.

Sarasota native Dolly Jacobs, founder of the Circus Arts Conservatory, has had a lifelong love affair with the circus arts. She's the daughter of famed performer Lou Jacobs and former model Jean Rockwell, and after spending decades as a performer, Jacobs is now dedicating her life to passing down the craft she spent her life perfecting.

"They learn camaraderie. They learn respect. They learn hard work pays off," says Jacobs, speaking during a rehearsal for the upcoming "Let It Snow" holiday show. "They learn to encourage their other peers. ...When somebody finally accomplishes a feat, they all get excited. When they do it themselves, you can’t buy or teach that type of accomplishment and that type of pride. They have to earn it."

Jacobs, a former aerialist, can't help but look back and consider how much things have changed and how they've stayed the same.

When she was a student, she learned at the Sailor Circus alongside the children of other circus performers, and it was really a fledgling program without many bells and whistles.


A group shot of the staff, students and volunteers of the Sailor Circus production of Let It Snow. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)
A group shot of the staff, students and volunteers of the Sailor Circus production of Let It Snow. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)


It was born out of expediency, said Jacobs, because a lot of the students were already trying circus skills on their own. Now, decades later, the Sailor Circus is housed in a state-of-the-art facility and is staffed by world class performers.

“It’s much different now,” says Jacobs, who runs the Circus Arts Conservatory with her husband, Pedro Reis.

“We practiced outside, and when we did put up an actual tent, we had sawdust on the ground. We’ve advanced quite a bit since Pedro and I took over. We’ve traveled the world, and we’ve seen other circus schools."

Reis, born in South Africa, agrees with that assessment. Reis said that were only a handful of schools teaching the circus arts in the United States a couple decades ago, but now it's becoming quite popular.

“Circus has become cool,” he says. “But it’s still a battle.”

"Let It Snow," which runs 90 minutes plus an intermission, is designed to give the audience the complete circus experience in its brief run time. Jared Walker, the creative director of the Sailor Circus, says his aim was to design a routine around the skills the performers had learned over the last few months.

Walker, a former actor, joined the Sailor Circus family after performing briefly as a ringmaster.

"I never saw it in my future at all," says Walker. "But I’ll tell you, it’s been exciting and challenging all at the same time since I’ve been here. And very fulfilling. I get to do everything that I do in one place. It keeps me on my toes, but I’m always doing something creative and learning new things."

That same concept applies to the student performers. The Sailor Circus is a full-fledged magnet school for circus arts, which means that many of the students spend half a day at Sarasota High School and half the day working through their routines. Jennifer Mitchell, the chief operating officer of the Circus Arts Conservatory, said that's a unique arrangement.

"I often say, ‘If you want to learn the history, go to Ringling Museum. They have an incredible story to tell you. But if you want to see what’s happening actively in today’s circus, come here,'" says Mitchell.

"Ninety percent of the kids go on to college. They become lawyers and doctors, but we always say that the life lessons and skills they learned here really help them in their career. You can imagine the confidence you build in front of audiences."

Mitchell's daughter, Emma Clarke, is one of the students building that confidence. Clarke, a junior in high school, said she's been participating in the circus activities for about eight years and she hopes to make a career out of it. Every day, she's working at it, putting seven hours into her craft at the same time as taking care of school responsibilities.

"I get here at like 12:30," says Clarke of her daily routine. "I do normal school until then, and then at 12:30 I do two circus classes which are connected to my school. I do that from 12:30 to 2:15 and then I have a 45-minute gap until 3. I’ll get food or change, do whatever I need to do. And then from 3 to around 7:15, I’m practicing or working out. I’ll do my school work when I’m home or sometimes when I’m sitting here just doing a break. Most of my teachers know that I have a super busy schedule so they’re a little more lenient with me. And then they come to the show and say, ‘OK, she’s busy.’"


Emma Clarke, a junior at Sarasota High School, soars high on the silks. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)
Emma Clarke, a junior at Sarasota High School, soars high on the silks. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)

And for some of the students, the path continues even after they've graduated.

Lila Watkins, who performs on the straps, suffered a serious knee injury during her senior year of high school and did not get to perform with her peers. And while she recovered from her injury, she refused to leave the circus alone. Watkins, a former acrobat, learned a routine on the straps while she was hurt and she fell in love with the new apparatus.

"When I was rehabbing and healing, I couldn’t do anything with my legs. This was just my arms. So I was really thankful to have that introduced to me," she says. "It’s very different going from a group of 20 to performing by yourself and all eyes on you. I’ll definitely go back and try acrobatics again, but I don’t know if that’s my passion."

For Watkins, much like Clarke and Jacobs, the circus is a family endeavor. Watkins says her dad was a clown with Ringling Brothers for many years, and she fell in love with circus when her sister enrolled at Sailor Circus. Watkins wasn't old enough at first, but now that she's a participant, she says that it's been everything she hoped it would be.

"It’s athleticism and acting. It’s dance,' she says. "Performing incorporates everything which is one of the reasons I love it. As a woman in this industry, you’re pushed to be strong and graceful at the same time, which is one of my biggest passions."


Coach Miguel Vargas and student Lila Watkins share a quiet moment during rehearsal. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)
Coach Miguel Vargas and student Lila Watkins share a quiet moment during rehearsal. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)


Miguel Vargas, the CAC's head coach, is responsible for installing those passions and keeping it fun for his young charges. Vargas, a fifth generation circus performer and former Cirque du Soleil troupe member, says that he sees himself in his students. Vargas began in the circus at 7 years old and it gave him a career that lasted 35 years.

Vargas, who spent his youth touring from city to city, said Sarasota offers a unique opportunity to both the performers and the audience, who in many cases are literally growing up together from season to season. 

"We always say that if you make it look easy, you’ve definitely honed your craft," says Vargas. "But it’s also great that the audience members get to see the students grow. They move on from some of the easier disciplines to some of the more advanced ones. And now within the program, most of the students are doing some really high-level skills, so we’re really proud of them for being able to showcase skills that you would see in a professional level circus."

Jacobs says that she's proud the Sailor Circus was able to continue performing during the pandemic with enhanced safety protocols, and she's excited for her students to see a capacity crowd during their holiday performances.

Jacobs, taught in the circus arts by her parents and by her godmother Margie Geiger, wants nothing more than to keep the arts alive for the next generation in the same place she was fortunate enough to learn them.

“Pedro and I, this is our life,” says Jacobs. “We’re able to give back to the community through the circus arts. We put our heads on our pillow at night, and we feel proud of all the hard work. We’ve got great employees and great volunteers. Everybody here believes in the kids and believes in what we’re doing.”


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