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Trapeze artist offers a glimpse into life in the circus

Aerialist Rebecca Ostroff speaks to a group about the history of the circus, how they travel, set up and perform. She also answers questions about the animals and the circus at the tent raising on July 9 in Kelly Park. (Ashley Finethy) (click for larger version)
July 11, 2012
BRISTOL —With the help of the Bristol Lions Club, the Kelly Miller Circus set up camp in Kelley Park in a one day stand on July 9. The circus performed both at 4:30 and at 7:30 p.m., selling more than 700 tickets.

Around 9 a.m. on the morning of July 9, some community members gathered to watch circus members and elephants raise the big top tent, see various circus animals and learn a bit more about the history or the circus.

"The Kelly Miller Circus was founded in 1938 by a man named Obert Miller, and he had two sons, Dory and Kelly — ta-da: Kelly Miller," said aerialist Rebecca Ostroff. "Cut to the future. It went through changes and became the second largest circus; it became a small three-ring circus, and now it is a one ring circus owned by John Ringling North II, whose grandmother was the sole sister to the Ringling Brothers."

Ostroff, who has traveled with the circus for more than two decades, recalled the growth and change she has seen since beginning her act in the 1980's.

"The show was a lovely, pretty quaint circus in the day," said Ostroff. "I know because I worked here in the '80's and '90's, and coming back now, it has jumped into the future. It's such a better show, with more direction and more themed. It's run really amazing, and it's a great place to live and work."

The group travels for a total of 38 weeks, and Ostroff insists that being a circus performer isn't just a job, it is a way of life.

"It's a great place to live and work," said Ostroff. "It's a family, it's a community, it's a town, it's a job, and it's everything."

The circus family isn't just everyone you see in the ring, she explained. It includes dozens of people who work behind the scenes to make the show runs smoothly from sun up to sun down.

"We're here with family, so we have a schoolhouse, we have a cook, a mechanic, welders, carpenters; you name it," said Ostroff. "We are a village of people, and we travel almost every single day."

When the circus has an extremely rare day off, oddly enough, they can all be found at the same place; whether it's a local water park or mini golf course, the circus family seems to be on the same page.

"When we have a day off and there is a water park, you go with your family, and there are all of your co-workers wearing bathing suits instead of eyelashes," said Ostroff. "It is kind of strange, but we seem to be on the same page, and we all get along, but have different relationships with each other."

One of Ostroff's best friends, an aerialist, still travels with the circus as an office manager, but their daughters play and spend time together. Ostroff's relationship and bond through the trapeze provided her with an incredible talent and opportunity.

"She actually helped me do the big thing that I do now, which is iron jaw; spinning by my teeth," said Ostroff. "I did that in the movie 'Water for Elephants,' and that's what my friend's family did, and she hooked me up with how to do it."

Her love for acrobatics, dance and gymnastics started at an early age, when she climbed trees and grew up taking dance classes.

"I was a dancer, and did gymnastics, and I was in New York City when somebody told me about this gymnastics gym for grownups; I called it geriatric gymnastics," said Ostroff. "I went there in the '80's, and it was so great, I decided I didn't want to be a dancer anymore, but I didn't know what else to do."

In a strange twist of fate, someone asked Ostroff if she would like to dance in a circus in New Hampshire, and thinking it was a joke, she agreed.

"I said yes and didn't think anything of it, but I saw these women doing my hobby, and the light bulb went on and I said, 'That's it! I'm getting a trapeze and I am going to make an act,'" said Ostroff. "I ran away and joined the circus, and my dream was to do a single rope act."

Throughout her career as an aerialist, she has tried various routines and tricks, discovering what she likes and doesn't like.

"I ended up being really good at the Roman Rings, but I ended up doing a trapeze act that I didn't even really like, but I have been doing it for so long now that I do like it," said Ostroff.

Now that Ostroff has been with the circus for a few decades, she has a bit of a routine for her performances each night.

"The show is at 4:30, and I start putting on my makeup at 4:15," said Ostroff. "I don't need to be in the tent until 4:45, so I give myself plenty of time."

Ostroff says that for her first number, what she calls "the camel dance," she doesn't need to be warmed up and her first dance wakes her up for her trapeze act that comes later.

"I wear this ridiculous costume," said Ostroff. "It is a sequined dress, and there are just strings of sequin, and I wear this ridiculous thing on my head and this big backpack. I wear it for the camel dance, and it's like putting on the ritz. I don't need to be really warmed up, but that kind of wakes me up."

Depending on the night, after "the camel dance," Ostroff is either rushing off to quickly prepare for her next act, called "web," or she is taking her time to stretch and prepare for the trapeze.

"Sometimes I do something called web to fill in, but that means I am stressed out because I have to have that costume ready, I have to get that costume on and warm up for web, and in intermission, I have to set my trapeze and put on that costume," said Ostroff.

If she doesn't have to do "web" to fill time, she says her routine is comfortable, and allows her just enough time to prepare for her trapeze act.

"Normally, I do the camel dance and get ready for trapeze, and that is comfortable," said Ostroff. "It's just enough time where I am not rushing. I can make sure my fishnets don't have any holes in them, and I can pick out a good costume."

Ostroff's daughter also performs in the circus, as does her husband, whom she met at her first performance with the circus.

"I met my husband at my first show in 1987," said Ostroff. "He plays the trumpet, and we're still together."

Though it may seem hectic performing and having a family that moves around with the circus, Ostroff insists that the circus is a wonderful place for a child to grow up.

"Your kids don't go off for eight hours and have these intense, sometimes fantastic and sometimes terrifying influences," said Ostroff. "You can see them on a regular basis, and you can look into their eyes and say, 'What is going on?' In a way, they may need more space, but I don't think any teenager needs that much space."

Not only are circus kids carefully watched over both by parents and co-workers, but Ostroff said that all of the life experiences they share together traveling and seeing the country creates this bond that makes their relationship stronger.

"In a way, you have all of these experiences together, and I think that it is a really good tie that will bind you for a long time," said Ostroff. "You have new life experiences traveling, weather, new frontiers and you get to share that."

Living life in the circus, Ostroff attests that the circus isn't just a job for the almost 100 person group that travels around; it's a way of life.

"The circus is a way of life," said Ostroff. "It's everything, and I love it."

Salmon Press
Martin Lord & Osman
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