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A Circus Life

By Jesus Lopez-Gomez | ColumbusTelegram.com
Thursday, June 7, 2012

Star performer clowm Alex Acero. © 2012 Columbus Telegram Photo by Cole W. Eberle

COLUMBUS — The first thing audiences saw as they took their seats at the Carson and Barnes Circus at Platte County Agricultural Park Tuesday evening was the clown Alex Acero.

His modest height gives him an adolescent appearance that he exploits in shows by donning red parachute pants and overdone face paint below a gravity-defying single long lock of hair that sticks straight out like an antenna.

His voice was raised a few octaves over the public address system giving him a chipmunk-like voice as he delivered the rules.

“There will be absolutely no, no, no smoking,” he said with a child’s self-conscious defiance wagging a finger.

Acero performed in Brazil before joining Carson and Barnes four years ago, where he does a little of everything. Before the show was over, the Columbus audience saw Acero perform on a trampoline, catch a bowling pin with his chin and turn his dog into a young girl.

“I have fun at my job,” he said. “I like making people laugh. I feel like it’s a game when I go on, not work. I just give thanks to God and go out there.”

© 2012 Columbus Telegram Photo by Cole W. Eberle

Under the big top, the ringmaster summoned the first act: Jenny Walker.

She performed the dog portion of her dog and pony act. Donning an impossibly sequined one-piece with excessively long fringes, she walked gallantly inside the ring smiling while dogs jumped easily through a hula hoop she held a few feet above the ground.

The moves are completed with such precision that it had to be the 408th time she had run the routine, although Walker smiled like she had just nailed the trick last week.

“Circus is like being in the army,” Walker said while sitting outside her trailer. “It’s a lot of work, but you get to travel everywhere.”

The group left Kearney at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday and made it to Columbus four hours later. They immediately began preparing for an evening show. Everyone was needed to set up the big top. Walker secured guy wires with tent stakes.

“I’ve been driving stakes in since I could pick up a sledgehammer,” she said.

Walker comes from a long line of circus performers. Both her grandfather and great-grandfather were animal trainers. Her father owns Walker Brothers Circus and her brother, John, works with elephants.

“Circus is in my blood,” Walker said. “I’ve wanted to be a performer since I could walk.”

But she had to wait awhile for her debut. At age 6, she was riding a baby African elephant. Walker was training her own animals by her 13th birthday.

Walker traveled with a circus when she was a minor and had to complete her formal education with an on-site instructor.

“They had a licensed school teacher,” she said. “We had school every single day from nine to 12. I hated it. My favorite subject was circus.”

When she was 17, she left her family in Sarasota, Fla., to travel full-time with a circus as a dancer.

“It was awesome,” Walker said. “Living on the circus train was kind of like what I guess going away to college would be like. You’re suddenly by yourself and there’s lots of young people.”

Walker has worked with elephants and zebras and everything in between. She’s kept a circus performer’s bizarre hours, budgeting time for regular naps and, when she can, indulging her love of cooking.

Her advice to anyone who wants to join the ranks of circus performers: “Be prepared to work hard and lose plenty of sleep. There are times when an act is due and no one shows up. You go to (the performer’s) trailer, they’re sleeping and you have to wake them up and say, ‘Hey, you’re on.’ So, circus life has its ups and downs.”

For high wire artist Jasmine Castro, the circus is also a family affair.

Prior to the show, her 6-year-old, Jayleen, came to the door still running a fever and looking for mom.

In a couple of hours, Castro would be doing a headstand on a beam carried by two other performers while they seek equilibrium on the high wire. Right now, she’s a mom with a sick child.

“Sorry,” Castro said excusing herself. “The catcher’s son had the flu and now I guess it’s our turn.”

The Wheel of Destiny. ©2012 Columbus Telegram Photo by Cole W. Eberle.

Castro is a Texas native, although her family hails from Colombia. Like Walker, she acts in a tradition of performers.

“Everyone in the family does highwire,” Castro said. “So, we grew up in it.”

Before she was with Carson and Barnes, she performed with the Ringling Brothers where she met another high-wire performer who later became her husband.

In addition to the high wire, Castro performs on the Wheels of Destiny, a contraption made of two man-sized hamster wheels bound together by metal struts, which are pinched in the middle making a flattened X. The whole unit is hung from either side of the center of the X so it rotates the Wheels of Destiny vertically allowing one person to walk around the inside of the hamster wheels and, if one is brave, another to walk on the outside … perhaps even with a blindfold.

“It’s all in the timing,” Castro said dismissively.