Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dear Circus Spectacular

Dear Circus Spectacular,

On a weekend outing with the kiddos to see you a few weeks ago, I realized how much I have aged.

It must have been a long time since I've seen a three ring circus.  My memories of circus acts are from live shows and footage from television.  What I remember most are skillful tightrope walkers with their awkward, long horizontal poles, and swinging acrobats flying and flipping through the silenced air.  Each of their exciting acts always led to the crowd's cheers and roars.

Our Circus Spectacular show began with white tigers and giant elephants.  The tigers were released into the caged center ring, all one dozen of them.  They roared, swatted, leaped, jumped through fiery hoops, and stood up as the trainer's whips flew in the air.  Then the elephants trotted out, trunk to tail, parading through the rings.  The largest elephant -- gray, wrinkly, and docile -- showed off her humorous personality by skipping, begging for apples, and rolling her massive body on a tiny barrel.  I had completely forgotten how nimble and agile these enormous animals can be.

The first two acts immediately brought to mind the book I read last year, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen.  Flashes of the book's major themes quickly surfaced: the hardships endured by life in the circus as well as the caste system that dictated how much adversity different crew members faced; the lives of the animals in captivity and their day-to-day training and transportation in confined spaces; and the dangers that stuntmen face and the risks they take in order to make a living.  I had no idea that this Circus Spectacular show was going to make me feel so unsettled.

The next set of acts involved ladies hung by their hair, spinning and twirling high up in the air.  Then, more women joined in by climbing up a sash and wrapping the sash around their bodies in such a way that they can let go, tumble down, and stop just short of hitting the ground.  While they were all beautiful to watch, it was also a bit heartbreaking; I wondered if the audience appreciated their efforts, as this was not high on the 'wow factor', and the applause was lukewarm at best.  I also couldn't help but think of what's really behind all their deliberate, presentation-style smiles.

The acts that took my emotions by a wild-goose chase were the daredevil stunts.  The ringmaster himself was in an incredible stunt act that took most people's breaths away.  Picture a long steel apparatus that turns on a fixed axis at its center, and one end sports a large wheel big enough to fit a grown man inside.  As this thing spins around on its axis, the ringmaster walked inside the large wheel with no belts or safety net present.  After a few rounds, he stepped outside of his wheel, and was then walking around on top of the wheel as the entire apparatus spun on its axis.  This stunt was called the Wheel of Death, a little too appropriately so.  I found myself wincing and looking away as soon as he took out a jump rope and started skipping while the wheel traveled at least 5 stories up in the air at a speed faster than we perceive from far away.  Then he blindfolded himself.  Then he did more things that made people screech and gasp from fear.  I cannot tell you what else he did because I could no longer watch his act by that point.  I only felt better when his act was over and he was still alive.

Near the end of the spectacular show were motorcycle daredevils that also scared the bejeezus out of me. Cyclists would ride up a ramp, fly through the air, and land on a down ramp with a loud thud.  Which is all fine, except that for the few seconds they were up in the air 3 stories high, they would leave their seats and do all kinds of things just short of letting go and falling straight down to the ground.  I just could not bring myself to look up at nearly half of their motorcycle flights.

Nevertheless, these stuntmen are great at what they do.  They are skilled and precise, probably in no real danger from harm since they do this multiple times a day, most days of the week.  They can probably do all of this with their eyes closed, literally.  But my mind just goes to the one darkest place here: what if.

Thankfully, there were a few acts that I simply adored.  The clown act with the wind-up stuffed animals: one stuffed animal walked with movements so real that I was completely baffled, and it turned out to be a dog dressed inside a stuffed elephant suit.  Then there were the jugglers: oh, the jugglers.  They were so awesome: the speed, the tricks, the showmanship.  And it didn't involve the risk of accidental death or bodily dismemberment!

So while I hid my eyes from all the spectacle, I took pictures of the kiddos.  And those photos revealed their immediate and true reactions to the exciting sights they saw.  They had that sparkle in their eyes that said -- wow.  Dear Son loved the motorcyclists; Dear Daughter was mesmerized by the Wheel of Death.  They enjoyed the show they way I enjoyed them as a child.  They watched it for the fantastic show it was, unfiltered by the lens of age, paranoia, and cynicism in my eyes. 

I'm a little saddened by my unexpected reaction to the show.  Perhaps it made me realize that age changes your perspective sometimes a little too swiftly and drastically.  I walked away from the show a wee bit disheartened by all the negative thoughts that inundated my poor old brain, which apparently lasted long enough to appear here.  But I am glad that the kiddos enjoyed the show.  So long as they didn't enjoy it enough to want to join the circus. 

So, Circus Spectacular, it may just be that I am too old for you now.  I'll always enjoy your cotton candy and clown acts, but I fear my weary heart cannot handle all the other risky excitement you showcase.  I'll just be busy photographing the kiddos and marveling at their looks of wonder as they watch you. 



  1. That's hard. I still like many of those acts, but there are some that I'm starting to get more uncomfortable with. And I'm not sure that this is a bad thing. Do I want to encourage my children to take pleasure in something that - older and wiser - makes me uncomfortable?

    1. I'm glad I'm not alone, Michelle! I certain won't be *encouraging* the kiddos to take pleasure in those dangerous stunts, but I also didn't want to taint their ability to enjoy the show without freaking out the way I did. It IS hard any way you look at it, isn't it? Have you taken the wee ones to the circus?

  2. I do believe that I have been to this VERY SAME CIRCUS, back in February! The acts you describe ( motorcycles/hair hanging chics) seem to indicate that perhaps you have written this letter to a certain "greatest show on Earth?"
    I completely relate to your feelings, too, and no, you are not alone. Sometimes it takes me watching my kids reactions to quell my own uneasiness about things, which sometimes feels backwards, you know, because I am supposed to be setting some sort of precedent. :)

    1. Well, it's not Ringling... It's called 'Circus Spectacular'. Maybe they all have same/similar acts (stiff competition?). My kiddos thought I was silly for looking away. "They're not gonna fall, mommy!" ('Don't you know any better?' is probably what they were thinking). What was I thinking? Headline on news: Tiger escapes cage; Stuntman took a fall; Stuntwoman's scalp ripped off. Yeah, that. Thanks, Kim, for visiting and commenting!

  3. I'd never been to a circus until the Piccadilly Circus came to Montgomery. It was... wow. We had the elephants, motorcycle, the wheel of death, and the ladies draped in curtains, but not the hair danglers. And we had camels instead of tigers. Your impressions are all quite a lot like mine. The circus unsettled me as much as it thrilled me. But for the kids, it was pure magic.

    1. JQ, I know! It WAS magical for them, wasn't it? I'm sure that as they get 'older and wiser', they will become just as unsettled as I get, since they do have some of my DNA, whether they like it or not. That Wheel of Death is really something. And there are no safety nets anymore...

  4. I am not sure if it's getting older (for me) or if it was reading Water for Elephants a while back that has turned me off from the circus--it had been a good 10 years between my last trip and my trip last fall (several months after reading the book) and everytime I saw something that reminded me of the book I became less interested. It could defintely still be getting older though-I imagine the treatment of the people & the animals has changed quite a bit in the last several decades.
    I'm glad your children enjoyed it though, I look forward to taking mine when they are a bit older and can actually remember their excitement.

    1. I remember putting off reading that book because of its topic; I just didn't think I would be interested in reading about a circus. Boy, was I wrong. It was probably one of my favorite books last year, *despite* the topic. I loved the story, narrative, and all the details about the hardships of being in a circus back then. I agree that the treatment of people and animals have probably changed since then; it's just the entire idea of it -- the animals being trained in captivity, and the people taking risks and touring all over the country to make a living -- makes it incredibly sad for me. But children all seem to find it magical being their innocent selves, so why not let them enjoy it before they get cynical like us? Thanks for your thoughts, Rachel!