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"Being Circus:" Life in the Family Business


The Zerbini Family

Alida Wllenda Cortes' family roots in the circus go back seven generations.

Some people work in the circus, and some people are circus, and the distinction between the two has little to do with how much rosin and chalky powder collects under a performer's fingernails.

Performers from multi-generational circus families hold a unique status under the big top. On the back lot they call it "being circus," and it represents a clear dividing line.

"For any of us who didn't grow up in the circus, there will always be a feeling as if we're on the outside looking in," says Big Apple Circus Guest Director Steve Smith.

For performers born into the family business of circus, the traditions are keener, the lights a bit brighter, and the pull of the ring can seem stronger than any other inclination.

"I was never interested in not performing," Alida Wallenda Cortes says of her willingness to follow in the large footprints of her circus-centric family. Wallenda Cortes is a seventh-generation circus performer who descends from three prominent circus families: the Wallendas, who originate in Germany; the Zoppe family, who hail from Italy; and the Bertini family, who honed their craft in the former Czechoslovakia.

"I was never pressured into being in the family business, It was my decision from day one," she says. "(Growing up), our schoolwork came first and then came practice. I became a regular member of the troupe when I was 10 years-old, but I'd been practicing for two years on the wire as well as gymnastics for five years," Wallenda Cortes recalls.

And generational circus performers populate many of the top circuses around the globe. In addition to Wallenda Cortes, the Big Apple Circus's 2008-2009 Play On! season hosted a number of artists who descend from circus dynasties.

Luciano Anastasini and his wife Gladis Espana are both eighth-generation circus artists whose collective families have dazzled as aerialists, acrobats and ring entertainers for hundreds of years. And young acrobat Christian Stoinev, who has been on the Big Apple Circus payroll since 2001, is a fifth-generation performer whose family founded the oldest circus in Mexico, Atayde Hermanos Circus.

"Some people ask if I felt pressure to continue the performance," says Stoinev who is currently a sophomore at Illinois State University. 'You already have a good act, why would you go to school?' I was asked that a lot," Stoinev recalls. "But my parents pushed me ... to go away from the circus. ... When you get pushed away from something, you know how much you miss it," he says.

Stoinev is majoring in broadcast journalism, but he plans to use his degree only as a last resort: His primary goal is to return to the circus ring following graduation.

"You can't choose. ... That's who you are," says Big Apple Circus aerialist Chrystie Toth of the circus performers who are born into their legacy. "It's in your blood."

Indeed, circus families go back many generations and form the heart and soul of the modern circus. And many of the circuses that exist today are run by the descendants of jugglers and acrobats and clowns from the middle ages or earlier, says Dominque Jando, circus historian and curator of

In Italy, for instance, the Togni family is credited with producing an impressive lineage of acrobats and animal trainers, as well as creating several circus engineering innovations. In Switzerland, the Knie family dynasty is known for its outstanding rope dancers and acrobats. And in England, the Samwell family is known for producing generations of circus managers, equestrians and animal trainers.

"(Circus families) made the circus. They created the styles and specialties," Jando says. "Before the Olympics, gymnastics didn't really exist — the circus was it. So, all of these traditions of acrobatics, juggling (and gymnastics) were kept alive by these families," he says.

"Circus is a way of life after a while and people marry in their world. When your life is a circus life, it's difficult to marry a 'towner,' Jando says. "There is a propensity for families to (perform) together or they'd never see each other."

The Flying Cortes, a renowned trapeze and aerialist troupe, formed when Wallenda Cortes married Robinson Cortes, an aerialist who is a fourth generation circus performer from a Columbian circus family. They, along with Cortes's brother and aerialist Toth, practice, perform and travel with each other all over the globe. Together, the Wallenda-Cortes union has yielded two children, and the oldest girl - Ysabella - is already performing the flying trapeze, cloudswing and tightrope at 9 years of age.

"We had large families and the best way to keep the family together was to perform acts for people to enjoy," Wallenda says. "We are with each other 24 hours/seven days a week. We live in travel trailers that are about 32 feet-long and have one bathroom. Our living room is our television room and dining room. ... You cannot go up in the air, putting your life in some one's hands, depending on each other, if you are angry," she says.

But a circus arts renaissance that began in the early 1970s has been hard on traditional circus families, according to Jando. As more circus schools debuted all over the globe, graduating circus performers with the physical skills to wow in the ring, traditional circus families suddenly had competition that they hadn't had for hundreds of years.

"The schools produce middle company performers who might have an act for five years, or so, and then quit," says Jando. "But circus families can't afford to fade away; this is their life!"

These days, circus families - especially in Europe - are making a resurgence as audiences are, more and more, seeking performers who not only can perform an elaborate or physically demanding trick, but who can also connect with an audience by greeting, smiling and engaging a crowd, taking a bow and physically and emotionally controlling themselves in the ring and backstage, says Jando.

Still, the difference between first-generation artists who choose the circus and those legacy performers who approach the ring with generations of expectations on their shoulders, is palpable.

"I like to say I'm first and last generation circus," says Big Apple Circus clown Barry "Grandma" Lubin. "The first time I showed up (to the circus) in 1974 ... I was in awe. Yes, I appear in the circus, people would say that Grandma works in the circus, but ... sometimes I'm shocked that I work in the circus," he says. "I look at other (circus) people, and I say, 'yeah, that's a real circus person, those are real circus people: Steeped in the traditions."


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