For traveling performers, every gig is up in the air

Ari Steeples has no posters of the Ringling Brothers on his wall, and no “What Would P.T. Barnum Do?” bracelet on his wrist. “I don’t have any heroes,” says Steeples, the ringmaster of the touring circus that came through Missoula this past weekend. “It’s all about making a living.”

He has even less tolerance for flashy circus superstars.

“A lot of them who are stars, we knew them back when they were shoveling shit,” Steeples says, his moustache rising in a mischievous smile. Which is exactly how Steeples got his start, he tells me, while sitting in a sixth row bleacher at the Adams Center of the University of Montana last weekend. Below, on the floor of the auditorium, circus workers amble around fastening safety nets and raising the high-wires.

Steeples’ father was an animal trainer in Hollywood. He got fed up with the movie business, and joined the circus in the early ’70s.

“I grew up on the road,” he says. “I started off when I was nine, shoveling bear manure.”

A three-ring childhood may mean sacrificing a traditional education, but there are other skills to be learned.

“These kids growing up in the circus, by the time they’re 12 they know how to ride a unicycle, juggle, do a back flip,” Steeples says.

Most circus kids are home-schooled, with some completing correspondence courses. Steeples has two children, a 5-year-old son and a year-and-a-half-old daughter. He is raising his son with a mixture of home-schooling on the road and public schools in the off-season.

“I missed out on school totally,” Steeples says. “I never had the option. I want him to have opportunities. If he wants to choose this, great. But if he wants to be a computer programmer, I’ll work extra hard here to get the money to get him that education.”

Growing up under the big top has its own social order, too.

“Most of my friends are from the circus,” says Matthew Esqueda. “We grew up together, and it’s hard to keep relationships with people in town because you’re always traveling.”

Matthew, 21, is a juggler and a clown. His brother Dino, 19, rides the motorcycle on the high-wire with their father, Alfonso.

“You get used to the height,” says Alfonso Esqueda, as he helps set up the gift stand by unpacking a box of inflatable owls. Riding his motorcycle across a high-wire no longer fazes this fourth generation circus man. Dino only gets nervous when they are in an old venue with a creaky wire, or if it’s unusually high. (One wire he used in Calgary was 110 feet off the ground. In Korea it was 167 feet; the Adams Center high-wire is only 60 feet.)

Alfonso Esqueda is from Mexico. His wife, Anneli, is Finnish. She comes from a family of acrobatic contortionists. The couple met at a circus in Nebraska back in the 1960s. A year and a half into their marriage, a near-tragedy struck when Anneli passed out in the air. She fell and was badly injured.

“I was lucky I wasn’t paralyzed,” she says. “It put an end to my aerial career.”

Denise Olmeda got her start doing dangerous routines with family members when she was 5 years old. Her first act involved standing on the back of a horse along with her whole family while the horse stood on its hind legs. “My parents were holding my aunt and my aunt was holding me,” she says. Today, in this circus at least, extreme animal tricks are frowned upon. Getting the animals to stand up on stools and the like takes harsh training.

“I’ve got three nice, sweet bears,” says Steeples. “I soft-train my bears. I use jellybeans. I don’t even carry a stick.”

Steeples points across the ring at the husband-and-wife cat team. “They’re not the greatest act in the world, but they’re nice to their animals,” he says. “I’d rather put a few cute clothes on the bears and have everybody be happy.”

Denise Olmeda uses the same principles when working with the horses with her son, Antonio. Antonio also stands on his head.

“I’ll be in a handstand carrying on a conversation with a guy in the next ring,” Antonio Olmeda says. When he gets out of shape or gets nervous, though, it can get tough. In 1999, his family performed in Montreal in front of 17,000 people.

“I started shaking big time,” he says. “I was hyperventilating, and the nerves got to me. I made it through, though. Now I just ignore the people being there.”

Denise Olmeda and her husband both come from multiple generations of circus families. And both husband and wife are twins.

“My twin quit the circus to be an actor,” she says. “My husband and his twin are both jugglers.”

Like a lot of venerable American institutions, the circus has not been immune to the ups and downs of the marketplace, popular tastes and the anxieties of a changing world. All of the circus families are freelance contract performers.

“It used to be, if you didn’t have bookings lined up for the next eight months, a year, you would panic,” says Denise Olmeda. “Now, you get contracts a week before the circus.”

Things have changed for the worse, she says, with promoters realizing they can get performers for cheaper by keeping them in short, unstable contracts.

Still, she says, she would not trade this life for anything.

“There’s sawdust in our blood. It’s all we know,” she says. “In our life there’s always something different, while a city job would be exactly the same thing every day. I can’t imagine being in the same place 40 hours a week, doing the same thing…Oh, my God! How can you do that?”

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