My Crazy Circus Adventures!

When you were a child, did you ever daydream about running away to the Circus? Perhaps especially when you were a teenager and home life was just getting all too tight and tense for your budding self? Well, me too! But I never thought I’d actually do it, for real — until….

I was 24 years old, living in London. I’d left my ballet career and was embarking upon a whole new inquiry into the world of natural medicine, along with studying a plethora of other fascinating subjects including creative writing, the psychology of consciousness, and natural dance.

I was in a convoluted relationship that I wanted to extricate myself from, and was up for the lead role in a film at the London Film School, as I thought it would be fun to try my hand at acting. Of course I was still dancing up a storm at the famous Pineapple Dance Studios on a committed regular basis. My life was certainly creative, but a bit of a diverse muddle if I was honest.

Then there came a day, a day I’ll never forget. I was hurriedly walking in the typical pelting rain through Covent Garden on my way to the dance studio, and happened to pass by a travel agency. There was a large poster of sunny, glorious Mexico strategically, and enticingly, placed in the window. I looked up at it longingly and thought “I’d love to go to Mexico! But I don’t have any money to get there right now…” My fleeting moment of dreaming was quickly flattened by the reality of my paltry bank account and the lashing rain. I quickly scurried on my way to class, hugging my wet coat around my chilled body, without a backward glance.

The dance class was fun and I enjoyed myself immensely. I did notice a middle aged woman watching us intently through the glass panel inserted in the door. I paid her no mind, as I was focussed on simply dancing my heart out. She never came in. But when we all trailed out, hot and sweaty, at the end, she stopped me. And then she said these words “How would you like a job with a circus in Mexico???” I looked at her stunned and non-plussed. She went on to explain “I’ve been watching this class, and you’re absolutely the most talented of all the dancers in there. I’m recruiting for a circus in Mexico and we’re looking for the very best dancers we can find. I’d like to offer you a job with our company, Cirque d’Italia.”

My mind was leaping — I couldn’t believe I was hearing this, given my idle wish just a little over an hour before. The synchronicity was undeniable, and I was well aware of this fact. I asked her “When would I start?” She answered “In two weeks”. “Hmmm”… I pondered “I’m up for a lead role in a film that starts rehearsals soon. Can you give me a couple of days to think about this?” She said “Of course”, and we proceeded to exchange contact details. But the truth is I already knew the answer. I was going to run away to join the circus! And, naturally, that’s what I did. For I knew this unexpected opportunity was highly fortuitous and signified my freedom. It was a way to get out of my convoluted life — it was the perfect means of escape.

Indeed, two weeks later I’d signed the nine month contract and was on the plane to Mexico City, to meet up with the circus, with one small suitcase of essentials. When I arrived in that sprawling city to meet my destiny, my suitcase did not. And since the circus was constantly on the move it took two months for my “essentials” to catch up with me. Wow, was that a challenging start to my new career as a circus performer!

But, oh, what a fabulous high class circus it was! We had a magnificent Big Top tent, no pit, but rather a large thrust stage with beautiful enormous curtains. It was glamorous, by circus standards, and was very famous throughout Mexico. Two shows every night were invariably sell outs, with virtually all of the community showing up — babies, children, adults and grandparents. Everyone came to the circus!

Cirque d’Italia was owned by an Italian multi millionaire named Franco. A short, dark haired, intense man who ran a tight ship. A man who always (did I say always?) packed two small silver pistols, one on either hip, nestled into a well-worn leather holster. A man who was a long time lion and tiger handler and was appropriately covered in some serious scars on his body from one angry encounter with a lion way back in his career. He was sleeping with one of the other young dancers (so utterly predictable — classic really), a blonde girl from Australia, who quickly became one of my good friends.

Our circus was comprised of brilliant trapeze artists from Poland, an incredible high-wire performer from Italy, wonderful clowns, phenomenal acrobats from Poland, a fabulous magician from America, and brilliant dancers from around the world. And then of course we had the animals — six elephants, six tigers and three chimpanzees. I loved the animals, and hung out with them as much as I could. Especially the tigers. I would go down really early in the morning when no one was awake except the stagehands, to simply sit with the tigers, while they ate their first meal of the day. They were my friends, especially when I was feeling a little lonely, perhaps even a little homesick, dare I admit it, for rainy old Blighty.

The other benefit for getting up so early was that I got to watch the tent being erected by the stagehands. The necessary coordination, the perfect rhythm they had to find to take turns driving in the massive stakes deep into the ground, and the final raising of the tent, was a wondrous pleasure to watch, and where I learned so much about the beauty of impeccable teamwork.

My work was reasonably multi-faceted as I quickly learned the French Cancan, ancient dances from Africa, Radio City Rockettes classics, and other dances from around the world. Rehearsals were long and intense during the day. We had no air conditioning inside the tent, only big fans whirring in the wings. We performed twice in an evening, and three times a day on weekends. Every ten days or so, we would pack up and move to the next town or city. We would travel in coaches, and the animals of course would be escorted in a very long, separate convoy.

As I was an avid Macrobiotic practitioner, the first thing I would do in each new place would be to scout out the food options to find the Chinese restaurants. Why? Because that’s where I knew I was guaranteed to find simple vegetable dishes with tofu. These foods weren’t easy to find elsewhere. Often I would ask the hotels where we stayed if I could cook brown rice in their kitchens. They were always kindly accommodating. I would add miso soup that I’d make in my room by heating bottled water with a small portable water immersion heater, and adding the miso paste that I’d brought with me from home. This was the best invention ever for my needs as I travelled around Mexico!

I had also thoughtfully packed Kudzu, dried shiitake mushrooms and dried seaweed to sustain me. As everyone went through turns getting sick with some type of dysentery or other intestinal problems (think “Montezuma’s Revenge”) I remained strong and healthy. Slowly but surely I became known as the natural “barefoot doctor” for the circus performers and other teammates. I was happy to help out in this way, and teach others how to stay healthy as we wended our way around the country.

Not long after I arrived I was chosen to be the Magician’s Assistant, a high honour indeed. I had understudied that critical role very briefly before being thrown into the ring so to speak! On my maiden voyage into the illusionary world of being “cut up into pieces” (and no, I’m not going to tell you how that particular trick is done) I made one small error inside the box, resulting in a wickedly sharp rapier sword driving into my rhomboid!

Of course the glorious curtains swiftly closed, but not before I jumped out of the box, turned and quickly exited the stage, with hot blood flowing like lava down my back. I still vividly remember the unified gasp from the full house. I ran to the dressing room, rapidly wiped off the blood, stuck a small bandaid over the deep cut, changed out of my green sequined bikini into my Cancan outfit, and was back onstage in no time at all for the next act. Such is life in the circus. I learned my lesson quickly that night, and needless to say, never erred again.

One night we all had a scare. The handsome Italian tightrope artist slipped and fell off the tightrope! Luckily there was a net far below him, so he was ok. But we later heard that the rope had been greased. No one seemed to know who the culprit of this horrible act was. I was so happy we had that net in place for our friend. Not everyone is so protected in other circuses.

I loved watching the Polish trapeze artists. This was the first career I truly desired to have when I was a very little girl. To swing around up so high, to balance, twirl and leap and be gracefully caught by a dashingly handsome man — well, I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do! Therefore I enjoyed their performances no end. What I never could fathom though was how much vodka they drank every night, risking their lives again the very next day! But they were a great, tight, highly talented team.

One of the highlights of my time with Cirque d’Italia was in Chihuahua. It was a really hot dusty Sunday and I was strolling up to the tent to begin the first of the three performances we would deliver that day. Someone suddenly yelled out to me “Julie! Get in here quick! The tigers have escaped!!” “Really?” I thought to myself, my mind whirling with immediate curiosity and wonderment. “Well, if they’re escaping I’m sure they don’t want to come over to me by the tent and do me harm! Besides, we are friends…”

I started scouring the beautifully melodious countryside where we were situated — Chihuahua’s rolling hills are quite lovely. Sure enough I quickly spied two of our six fabulous Bengal tigers streaking away across the lush landscape! It was the most thrilling thing I’d ever seen, and I promptly burst into tears with the sheer joy of witnessing these magnificent creatures finally being fully authentic, unleashed into freedom.

What impressed me so much, that continually inspires me to this day, is that, though these majestic animals had been caged and trained to perform all their lives, they had never lost their natural wild instinct and ability to run full tilt with all the power they could muster, as soon as they were able. Watching them stream across the land was truly one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. No Discovery Channel, no National Geographic production or BBC Planet documentary — No, here was the real thing, in real time, in real life.

This jaw dropping witnessing of tigers breaking free has constantly informed my subsequent life decisions. I realized that baking hot day, that we, as human beings, are not so dissimilar. We are animals, and have also been locked up in cages of entraining conditioning throughout our lives. Yet we, too, never forget what it means to act from our innate freedom of being, our sovereignty. I am sure that becoming an entrepreneur, taking big risks, to live my life the way I authentically see fit, was majorly influenced by this experience.

It took 2 days for the tigers to be found, tranquilized and brought back to the circus. Luckily they had only killed one small calf to eat, so there was not too much collateral damage, so to speak. I went to visit them the following day, whispering to them “I am so proud of you! You did it, even if just for a day or two, you got your taste of freedom. I love you more than I can say!” We never did hear how they got out, how the door of their large cage was left unlocked.

Well, ironically, I took a page out of the tigers’ book very soon afterwards. It came to my attention that the owner and boss, Franco, was confiscating our passports. Why? Because some performers had upped and left without any warning, nor a backward glance, breaking their contracts. This was an interesting phenomena as we were all very well paid, so I don’t think that was the issue. I think probably they’d just had enough of the intensely hard work, and wanted to make a change, perhaps even to go home.

The idea of having my British passport taken away did not sit well with me at all. I didn’t relish the idea of being in Mexico without that passport one little bit. I wasn’t just concerned, I was offended that Franco would take that kind of control. So I made a hasty, ill thought out, plan to run away from the circus immediately. First I went to draw out my money that was safely kept in a Banamex Bank Account. They wouldn’t let me take all the money I’d accumulated and close out the account so fast, so I drew the maximum I could that day, which didn’t amount to much. Still, to this day, I have never been able to retrieve the rest of my hard earned money out of that bank!

I spoke to a couple of my closest friends, telling them in secret that I was leaving. They were sad as we had enjoyed such good times together, but they understood my resolute decision. I packed my small suitcase, which I basically lived out of anyway, and then went to say a sweet goodbye to the magician (whom I was dating at this point) in the middle of that very night.

I remember the cool early morning air as I discreetly left the hotel, wrapped in a cloak of darkness that was rapidly giving way to the dawn’s mystical light. I had already called for a taxi, and after a relatively short ride, found myself at the little Chihuahua airport by 4am. I booked the first plane out of there to Tijuana. As I waited apprehensively in the empty airport for my flight to be called, I recall looking over my shoulder nervously, fully expecting to see Franco standing there with his hand casually, yet firmly, hovering over one of his silver pistols. He didn’t show up. I had nightmares for years subsequently, that he was chasing me down.

I gratefully boarded that small commuter plane out on the tarmac and within less than two hours found myself at the already bustling airport in Tijuana. I blithely strode to the immigration checkpoint, my UK passport clutched in my hot little hand. When the officer looked at my passport and visitor visa, he immediately noticed that it had expired awhile back. At 24, this is something I just hadn’t accounted for. I was in such a hurry to escape from the circus, that this bureaucratic detail had escaped me completely!

I am the worst liar on the planet. And being a redhead doesn’t help one bit, as I start blushing instantly if I’m not telling the truth. But sometimes you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do… As the officer started questioning me I had to think fast on my dancer’s feet. Very fast. I told him my papers were with the circus called “Cirque d’Italia”, and that I was just popping over the border into the US for the day to get a couple of good books to read. He looked at me dubiously.

Then an idea struck me, as if heaven-sent. I said, with all the confidence I could muster in the moment, “We were just here in Tijuana for ten days. Did you happen to come to a show?” He said that yes, in fact he had come to see us. (As I stated earlier, everyone came to see us!) Gathering strength, I delightedly said “Well, I am the Magician’s Assistant, and was cut up in pieces in front of your eyes. I was wearing a green sequined bikini. Do you recognize me?!” He studied my face. There was a long pause. Then he smiled, like the sun bursting over the horizon.

“Yes! Yes! I recognize you! That was a fantastic trick…” he gushed. I beamed back at him and said “Oh I’m so happy you enjoyed it! I will be back later today, ready to perform again tomorrow in Chihuahua.” He nodded, thanking me for the performance he had so enjoyed, and ceremoniously waved me on, through the checkpoint.

Well, as you can imagine, my legs turned to rubber once I was at a safe distance. I almost collapsed on the ground with all the adrenaline flooding through my veins. The thought of being clapped into some anonymous jail in Tijuana, waiting for Franco, or one of his henchmen, to show up, was not at all my idea of a good time. I knew I had narrowly escaped this ugly possibility.

I meekly picked up my luggage, and headed for the Greyhound station to buy a ticket to get up to Los Angeles, where my father lived. It was a long, hot, uncomfortable ride. I arrived at my father’s house late in the day, unbeknownst to him. No one was home. I hid my suitcase behind a bush on his property, and walked, physically and emotionally exhausted, into the village to get some dinner.

I found a lovely little natural foods restaurant and ordered some soup and bread — that’s pretty much all I had money for. The owner came out to chat with me, as it was so late and the place was empty. He asked me about my day and I unravelled my colourful story piece by piece. He was utterly fascinated, and brought out a bottle of champagne and a full dinner on the house, saying that was the best story he’d heard in a very very long time! I was so grateful.

Thus ended my wild stint in the circus. Suddenly running away to the circus, performing, making wonderful friends, learning magic tricks and just as suddenly running away from the circus, was one of the greatest adventures of my life so far. The moral of this story I guess, if indeed there is one, is to seize the day… trust your gut, and take those serendipitous opportunities. You never know where you’ll end up. Bon voyage!

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