Lessons from the Circus: 2013

One of the great joys which I have been able to experience in the many years since my retirement from the good, old, Newark Fire Department is the ability to travel when I want to and not when a vacation spot or personal day is open. Thanks to this...


A word about the Sailor Circus is in order. It was formed in 1949 as vocational program at the Sarasota High School. Over the years it morphed into an independent group supported by the local Patrolman's Benevolent Association (PBA). It is now affiliated with the Circus Sarasota. The mission of Circus Sarasota is to educate children using unique and innovative learning programs; to improve the quality of life for individuals in care facilities; and to advance the extraordinary legacy of the circus arts. This group assists in the training of local youths from the community to perform classic types of circus acts. 

Such is not the case in 2013. I saw something among the performers and their adult leaders which really caught my eye. In fact this column might better be entitled "Teamwork and Trust: The Keys to Leadership Success." There were a number of impressive interactions between the performers and between the leaders and the performers which really got me to thinking. 

It was my good fortune to have a dear friend and his wife attend the concert and circus with me. Ed Cleveland is a retired fire chief who lives in Bradenton, Florida. Ed was a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) board of directors with me for many years. He and his wife Sonjia were with me as the circus band struck up its music to support the student performers. We usually get together for supper one night and attend the circus on Sunday. We have been doing this for many years now.

This year we were treated to a very professional show by the student performers. There were jugglers, tumblers, unicyclists, and a variety of special acts which specialized in classic airborne hanging and spinning maneuvers. There was even an act which used one of the youngest performers in the circus as part of a human jump rope.

Let me share with you the fact that the young lady who performed the flying 'human jump-rope' role was probably no more than ten or eleven years old. She was tossed to and fro by the members of her team. The amazing thing to me was the way in which she had the utmost trust in her fellow performers. She knew that if they tossed her into the air, they were going to be there to catch her. Trust like that does not happen to anyone over night. It is a result of a concerted effort by dedicated performers. 

Throughout the act she kept flying through the air and always had the biggest and cutest smile you would ever want to see. There was not the least little sign of fear in her eyes. This is when I had my first moment of thought about the need for trust and teamwork in a successful circus act.

However, it was the final act which made the greatest impression on me. There were four members of the group who performed on the flying trapeze. These were people whose lives and safety literally depended on the skills, strength, and talent of their fellow performers. Imagine the trust in your teammates that you need in order to allow you to let go of the flying bar in mid-air, turn quickly and grab for the strong pair of hands you know will be there to catch you.
I believe that the team's trust and teamwork began with the actions of the veteran adult members of the ground support crew who laid-out, erected, and tested the safety nets for the flyers. Nothing could begin until these men had checked and rechecked the stability and integrity of the net which would serve as the ultimate difference between falling into a safe haven or crashing to the floor. To say that they were supremely meticulous in their preparation is an understatement.

Just prior to commencing the act, the advisor, the ground crew, and the flyers huddled at one end of the net for one final team meeting, and when I say huddled, that is exactly what they did. Then each person moved off to their designated position. The ground crew went to their spotter's positions and the advisor moved to her position on the south side of the net. When all was in readiness, the performers ascended to their places aloft in the rigging. They were at least 30 feet in the air. There were three flyers on the main balance platform with one guy in the strength position on the trapeze over the center ring of the circus.

Each of the flyers conducted a number of preliminary journeys back and forth on the flying bar opposite the guy who was hanging from the main location. It was as though they were sizing up the situation and getting their airborne bearings. It became obvious that each of the three flyers was going to attempt a mid-air hook up with the fellow on the flying trapeze. As they gained their confidence and flexibility with the preliminary movements, I began to wonder just how they would synchronize the flying actions of the two individuals aloft on the flying bars. The answer was not long in coming.