The music is booming, the lights are shining and the students are playing without a net.
It’s just another day at Sailor Circus Academy, a seven-decade institution in Sarasota, and a whole host of rehearsals are going on at the same time. There are children who attack the trapeze and others who do somersaults on a trampoline. Soon, teens will take on the Roman Rings in front of one of the world’s greatest practitioners.
Dolly Jacobs, a native of Sarasota, founder of the Conservatory of Circus Arts, has had a long-standing love affair with the circus arts. She is the daughter of famous performer Lou Jacobs and former model Jean Rockwell, and after spending decades as a performer, Jacobs now dedicates her life to passing on the craft she has spent her life perfecting.
âThey learn camaraderie. They learn respect. They learn that hard work pays,â said Jacobs, speaking during a rehearsal for the upcoming holiday show âLet It Snowâ. “They learn to encourage their other peers. … When someone finally does something, they’re all excited. When they do it on their own, you can’t buy or teach that kind of accomplishment and that kind of thing. pride. They must earn it. “
Jacobs, a former outfielder, can’t help but look back and consider how much has changed and how it has stayed the same.
When she was a student she learned at Sailor Circus alongside the kids of other circus performers, and it was really a fledgling program without a lot of bells and whistles.
It was born of opportunity, Jacobs said, because many students were already trying circus skills on their own. Now, decades later, the Sailor Circus is housed in state-of-the-art facilities and is made up of world-class performers.
âIt’s very different now,â says Jacobs, who runs the Conservatory of Circus Arts with her husband, Pedro Reis.
âWe trained outside and when we set up a real tent we had sawdust on the ground. We’ve come a long way since Pedro and I took over. We have traveled the world and seen other circus schools. “
Reis, born in South Africa, agrees with this assessment. Reis said there were only a handful of schools teaching circus arts in the United States a few decades ago, but now it’s getting very popular.
âThe circus has gotten cool,â he says. “But it’s still a battle.”
“Let It Snow”, which lasts 90 minutes plus an intermission, is designed to provide the audience with the full circus experience in its short duration. Jared Walker, the creative director of Sailor Circus, says his goal was to design a routine around the skills the artists had learned over the past few months.
Walker, a former actor, joined the Sailor Circus family after briefly acting as a track chief.
âI’ve never seen him in my future,â says Walker. “But I’ll tell you, it’s both exciting and empowering since I’ve been here. And very fulfilling. I can do whatever I do in one place. It keeps me on my toes, but I still do. something creative and I’m learning new things. “
This same concept applies to student interpreters. The Sailor Circus is a full-fledged magnetic school for the circus arts, which means many students spend half a day in Sarasota High School and half a day working on their routines. Jennifer Mitchell, director of operations at the Circus Arts Conservatory, said it was a unique arrangement.
âI often say, ‘If you want to learn history, go to the Ringling Museum. They have an amazing story to tell you. But if you want to see what is actively going on in the circus today, come here.’ “says Mitchell.
â90% of kids go 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 careers. You can imagine the confidence you develop. in front of the public. “
Mitchell’s daughter, Emma Clarke, is one of the students who develops this confidence. Clarke, a middle school student, said she has been involved in circus activities for about eight years and hopes to make a career out of it. Every day, she works there, devoting seven hours to her job at the same time as she takes care of her school responsibilities.
âI get here around 12:30 pm,â Clarke says of her daily routine. âI go to normal school until then, then at 12:30 pm I do two circus lessons which are connected to my school. I do this from 12:30 p.m. to 2:15 p.m. and then I have a gap of 45 I go get some food or change, do whatever I need to do. And then from 3 p.m. to 7:15 a.m., I work out or play sports. I’ll do my homework when I’m home or sometimes when I’m sitting here just taking a break. Most of my teachers know that I have a very busy schedule, so they are a little more forgiving of me. And then they come to the show and say, “OK, she’s busy.” “
And for some students, the journey continues even after graduation.
Lila Watkins, who plays on straps, suffered a serious knee injury during her senior year of high school and was unable to play with her peers. And as she recovered from her injury, she refused to leave the circus alone. Watkins, a former acrobat, learned a strap routine while injured and fell in love with the new device.
âWhen I was in rehab and healing, there was nothing I could do with my legs. It was just my arms. So I was really grateful that I presented this to me,â she said. “It’s very different from going from a group of 20 playing alone and all eyes on you. I will definitely go back and try acrobatics again, but I don’t know if that’s my passion.”
For Watkins, like Clarke and Jacobs, the circus is a family business. Watkins says her father was a clown with Ringling Brothers for many years and that she fell in love with the circus when her sister signed up for Sailor Circus. Watkins wasn’t old enough at first, but now that she’s involved she says it’s been everything she hoped it would be.
âIt’s athletics and theater. It’s dance,â she said. âThe show incorporates everything which is one of the reasons I love it. As a woman in this industry you are driven to be both strong and graceful which is one of my greatest. passions.”
Miguel Vargas, the head coach of the CAC, is responsible for instilling these passions and keeping the fun for his young charges. Vargas, a fifth-generation circus performer and former Cirque du Soleil troupe, says he recognizes himself in his students. Vargas started in the circus at the age of 7 and this gave him a career that spanned 35 years.
Vargas, who spent his youth touring town to town, said Sarasota provides a unique opportunity for performers and audiences, who in many cases literally grow up together from season to season.
âWe always say if you make it look easy, you’ve definitely perfected your craft,â says Vargas. âBut it’s also great that members of the audience can watch the students grow up. They go from some of the easier disciplines to some of the more advanced. And now within the program most of the students are doing very high skill level, so we are very proud of them for being able to showcase skills that you would see in a professional circus. “
Jacobs says she is proud that the Sailor Circus was able to continue performing during the pandemic with improved safety protocols, and she is delighted that her students see a large crowd during their holiday performances.
Jacobs, taught in the circus arts by her parents and godmother Margie Geiger, wants nothing more than to keep the arts alive for the next generation in the same place where she had the chance to learn them.
âPedro and I are our life,â says Jacobs. âWe are able to give back to the community through the circus arts. We put our heads on our pillow at night and take pride in all the hard work. We have great staff and great volunteers. Everyone here believes in children and what we do.