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2018 marks 250 years since the first circus was founded, in London in 1768. Travel writer and ex-circus performer Dea Birkett heads to Sarasota, a town that circus built, to sign her kids up for classes
I did it! I did it!’ Fifteen-year-old River is upside down. He’s been like that for quite a long time, practising his handstands. His twin sister, Savanna, is the right way up – she’s toppled over again. Their tutor, Rodleigh, shouts, ‘You almost kicked me in the face!’
‘Sorry,’ replies Savanna, sheepishly.
‘You would be sorry if you did that,’ says Rodleigh.
River and Savanna have signed up for Circus Summer Camp at the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota. Every summer, hundreds of kids roll up to this town on the west coast of Florida to learn to handstand, juggle, tumble and fly. I used to be a circus performer, so wanted my kids to get a taste of the tinsel and experience the terror of the ring. Sarasota was the best place in the world to bring them.
This is a town that circus built. When John Ringling – of Ringling’s The Greatest Show on Earth – wintered here with his wife, Mable, in the early 20th century, it was a sleepy, sundrenched spot, straddling a beach with sand fine and white, like icing sugar. Then, in 1927, Ringling brought his circus winter quarters to Sarasota, and the small group of sunseekers were joined by lions, horses and elephants; acrobats, jugglers and clowns.
From The Ringling museum and art gallery, to Ringling Boulevard, to the Circus Ring of Fame, circus and city thrived together. Boosted by the big top, Sarasota, with its beautiful beaches, is now a holiday resort to rival Palm Beach.
But the Circus Arts Conservatory is no holiday camp. The girls may be wearing fishnets, but it’s tough. ‘You’re going to be sore tomorrow, I can guarantee that,’ says Rodleigh, who knows. His family troupe was the Flying Rodleighs, regular performers at Ringlings.
Circus is all about learning through failure. It’s through failure that you work out how to do things,’ he warns. ‘So, want to give up on that handstand?’ Rodleigh challenges Savanna.
‘No! I want to do it!’ she replies. And she does.
Rodleigh approves. ‘What you’re doing isn’t easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it, and it wouldn’t be special,’ he says.
Rodleigh Stevens takes over 600 children through these circus paces every summer.
Each class begins with a warm-up. ‘Now we’re going to do a neck-strengthening exercise to avoid whiplash,’ he announces at the twins’ first class. Savanna is already terrified. ‘I can’t even do a cartwheel,’ she says, staring at the trapeze bar swinging overhead.
They start with somersaults, cartwheels, handstands – the simple components of any tumbling act. ‘It’s more pain than fun, before it becomes more fun than pain,’ says Rodleigh. And very soon it has become lots of fun. ‘I’ve never even done a cartwheel before. Now look at me!’ Savanna smiles.
At Circus Summer Camp, housed in a building that looks like a giant airport hangar hung with more ropes than a sailing ship, kids get a chance to try out all the tricks. They can be jugglers or hula-hoop artistes, try out the giant Cyr wheel or master the cloud swing.
The twins go for the flying trapeze. Rodleigh straps them into safety belts and takes them to the rigging outside, where they clamber onto the tiny platform. River grabs the bar and jumps. And he is flying – back and forth, back and forth. And he is smiling. Smiling so much I’m worried he’ll stop holding on and tumble into the net below.
When he stops swinging and glides back onto the tiny platform, he is so happy he is dazed. ‘That was amazing,’ is all he can manage to say.
But in the circus, one success only leads to the next challenge. Now, River has to swing hanging upside down. But first, he must remember one simple circus rule, says Rodleigh: Always know where up and down is. And River jumps again, swings high, throws up his legs, wraps his knees over the bar, and he’s upside down, flying through the Florida sun. This time, he’s not smiling. He’s beaming.
The twins try out their newfound skills all over town. Sarasota is a city shaped like a surfboard – very narrow but 45 miles from end to end.
At The Ringling – the house, estate and circus museum the Ringlings lived in and founded – they climb the banyan trees and hang upside down from the branches. I have to stop them sliding down the banisters in Ca’ d’Zan – the ornate 56-room mock-Venetian palace Mable Ringling designed for the couple to live in.
In the Circus Museum, River tries out all the interactives, shooting model bodies out of a canon and trying out the high-wire walk – a lit-up line along the floor which buzzes if you fall off and tings a congratulatory bell if you successfully get to the other end. The gallery assistant advises River, ‘Imagine you’re on a highwire high up in the air. If you miss this line, you’re dead.’ The bell tings. ‘Yeah!’ we all roar, in genuine relief.
In Sarasota, circus pops up in the most unexpected places. In a big concrete yard, we discover an old railway carriage with the letters ‘Jomar’ painted on the side. This was the train the Ringlings travelled around in, once over a mile long. Before them would have been carriages of animals and acrobats, cooks and grooms. Bob Horne, a circus enthusiast, rescued the abandoned carriage and fixed it to another, which he now runs as a café. We sit in the circus wagon eating our huge American-style sandwiches under black-and-white photos of former circus performers.
Entrepreneur John Ringling had ambitions for Sarasota beyond the ring. He developed St Armands Circle, a carousel of European-style cafes and boutiques around a small circular park with a statue of Ringling in it.
Around the edge of the park is the Ring of Fame, Sarasota’s answer to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, with plaques on the pavement to famous performers, such as Dolly Jacobs, now 60, who founded and runs the Circus Arts Conservatory, and still spins on a rope in the big top every year at Circus Sarasota.
It’s a few moments walk from St Armands Circle to Siesta Beach, consistently voted the best beach in the US. The twins do a couple of cartwheels on the icing-sugar sand. River practises his handstand. We watch the huge Florida sun set over the ocean. The twins’ muscles may ache, but their hearts are soaring. ‘Look at the giant orange sun – now that’s a good show,’ says Savanna. ‘But it’s not the Greatest Show on Earth,’ says River. ‘The circus is.’
WHERE TO STAY
America As You Like It offers a 7-night family holiday to Sarasota from £965pp (based on a family of 4 sharing). Including return flights, car hire and 7 nights’ accommodation at the Hampton Inn & Suites Sarasota. americaasyoulikeit.com
WHAT TO DO
Circus Summer Camp costs £210 for a week and can be booked at circusarts.org
The Ringling museum and estate entry costs £20 adults and £4 children (6-17 years).
It’s hard to find Bob’s Train without a satnav. Open for lunch only – phone ahead to check. bobstrain.com
Anniversary celebrations of Circus250 will happen UK- and Ireland-wide. Check out circus250.org