Dolly Jacobs

Circus Aerialist and 2015 National Heritage Fellow
headshot of Dolly Jacobs

Photo by Barbara Banks

Music Credits: “New Life” written and performed by Antonio Sanchez, from the cd New Life

Dolly Jacobs: There are so many great performers that laid the path for the rest of us that struggled throughout the years with incredible acts, laid the foundation on which we stand, and it’s in respect and honor of them that I accept this award because, again, I wouldn’t be where I am had they not laid the path for the rest of us and for me, to inspire me as a little girl looking up at the girl on the flying trapeze.

Jo Reed: That is circus aerialist and 2015 National Heritage Fellow, Dolly Jacobs. And this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Dolly Jacobs comes from a line of circus performers stretching back to Europe. Her father was the great clown, Lou Jacobs, who starred in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1925 through 1987. He also had the distinction of being the only living American to have his image on a U.S. postage stamp. Her mother was a famous model and sometimes circus performer. And Dolly’s godmother, and teacher, is Margie Geiger— who is the daughter of one of the original Flying Wallendas. It’s little wonder that Dolly Jacobs grew up to become one of the most renowned aerialists in the world. She works on both Roman rings and aerial straps. Her act combines grace, strength, and no small amount of daring. In fact, she is known as "Queen of the Air."

Dolly also believes deeply in the traditions of circus arts and in passing them along to the next generation. She and her husband Pedro Reis founded the Circus Arts Conservatory-- a nonprofit organization that produces Circus Sarasota and provides education and outreach programs. They recently took over Sailor Circus, which is the youth circus arts program that Dolly participated in when she was a girl. Meanwhile, the amazing Dolly Jacobs continues to perform as an aerialist in Circus Sarasota.

Dolly Jacobs has received many awards, and now she’s been named a National Heritage Fellow, and becomes the first circus artist to receive the award. Dolly Jacobs lives in Sarasota, Florida, which I discovered is a big circus town.

Dolly Jacobs: It is. John and Mable moved here back-- I think it was 1927.

Jo Reed: And that’s Ringling.

Dolly Jacobs: That’s Ringling Brothers, yeah. They moved their winter quarters here to get away from the cold up north. It was here in Sarasota for many years and thus all the great circus artists homesteaded here in Sarasota-- bought their homes and raised their families and went into the school system. Incredible-- it’s an incredible town, Sarasota is.

Jo Reed: You had to have studied ballet or gymnastics when you were a kid given what you do, which is ballet and gymnastics very, very high up in the air.

Dolly Jacobs: Yes. Actually, my godmother, Margie Geiger, was a ballet dancer from New York so she gave me the ABCs of ballet in the air. I had-- maybe at five years old I might-- maybe had five or six months of ballet. And gymnastics yes, with the YMCA. And we have Sailor Circus, which is a youth circus here that’s over 66 years old now and I was a part of that as a child. So basically yes.

Jo Reed: Now you were always drawn to the circus.

Dolly Jacobs: Yes. Just having the circus background in the sense of being around the big show, if you will, Ringling Brothers, and watching the professional performers perform was truly an inspiration for me as a child and it planted a seed in me that that is what I wanted to do and I didn't talk about it, I just waited until the time that I was able to and I went full force. And with the gracious and very generous help of my god mother Margie teaching me the aerial ring act-- it's the reason I am where I am. You know, we all get somewhere in life but it's not by ourselves-- it's through the help of others. And sometimes people help you and they don't even realize how they're planting seeds in you that will last forever.

Jo Reed: A lot of kids run away from home to join the circus but when you joined the circus in fact you joined your father.

Dolly Jacobs: Yes.

Jo Reed: How old were you and tell me about that experience.

Dolly Jacobs: I actually was 13 going on 14 years old and my sister went a year ahead of me and they have, on Ringling Brothers, chorus girls. So we called them showgirls and they did basically aerial ballet on ropes and dancing and riding horses and elephants, and so actually when my sister was there the aerial director said, “You got any more of them at home?” <laughs> to my father. And so I was able to join the following year and I was the youngest obviously. All the girls were in their twenties and-- but it was a great learning experience for me. I was very shy in school so going from public school into this big world of-- magical world of the circus, Ringling Brothers, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and being at that age even though my sister was there and my mother and father were there you were protected but it-- still it was just another world.

Jo Reed: I bet.

Dolly Jacobs: It was a great learning experience for me because like I said I was shy so all of a sudden I have homeschooling and it was quite a difference from public school, and basically finished at the same time as if I were in high school. I finished at 18. Through that time what was wonderful was that I had incredible tutors, especially this one who would come over-- Kathy Herb. She came over every morning and we studied. We lived on a train. We traveled by train so we had staterooms and it was wonderful. It was-- not only the one-on-one with the education but also visiting venues and incredible museums throughout America.

Jo Reed: Yeah, that's what I wanted to ask you-- what it was like living on a train and seeing the country.

Dolly Jacobs: It was wonderful, it was-- it’s something that lasts with you forever. You travel by train, you see the whole countryside from East Coast to West Coast and you see all these incredible towns and things that you would generally only read about. They had two units, red and blue, and the red unit would go to all the large towns, a few of the smaller towns, but played in New York City--that was the big run-- and then the same show would do the following year the smaller towns. And so you crisscrossed America within these two years with the same show and it was... it was incredible.

Jo Reed: Well how did you move up in the ranks in the circus?

Dolly Jacobs: I knew in my heart of hearts I wanted to have my own act and I knew I couldn't do it until I finished my schooling. So I took time off after I graduated, stayed home by myself-- my father kept traveling, my sister and my mother also traveled. I stayed home and my god mother came over every day and we practiced early in the morning and in the evening this Roman ring act that she performed herself. We had outdoor rigging. Actually first, we started with the single trapeze because I really didn't know what I wanted to do. There’s a lot of single trapeze acts out there, and, “I’ll start with single trapeze and then I’ll go from there.” And at the time my sister was doing single trapeze and Margie said, “Why don’t you just try the rings?” So I tried the rings and I thought it would be very difficult. Then she started teaching me and basically I had a still routine and a swinging routine. So it made it completely different, and plus the fact that I was very limber and more flexible, I was able to do different tricks. So the still routine was basically a lot of contortion and that such, and then the swinging routine basically was like you see in the gymnastics at times. They do swinging rings but you do swinging dislocates, which is when you’re hanging by your hands and at the end of the swing you throw your body over, and rolls and splits and knee catch. So it was an incredible feeling compared to the single trapeze because I had freedom. They’re separate; they’re not connected. Granted, you know, there’s a lot of pinching and bruises in the back of your knees. “It’s a long way to Tipperary,” I always say, you know, when you’re training. It’s a lot of hard work and pain but I knew in my mind where I wanted to be and I knew what it took to have to get there and I did. It was actually about four months of training with Margie—

Jo Reed: Now when you use the rings or you use the aerial strap how high up are you?

Dolly Jacobs: The rings when I worked them they were 32 feet high.

Jo Reed: Okay.

Dolly Jacobs: And that’s where the bar was hanging that the rings were hanging from and the rings themselves were 11 feet long. And then when I swang I would swing up over the crane bar so I was actually up over 32 feet when I was swinging and, granted, this is all with no safety, no net and just hanging by your fingers-- your hands. You know, anything you do in the air is dangerous.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Dolly Jacobs: And plus if you’re just hanging by your hands and doing these types of dislocates, which is a lot of stress on your hands and a lot of weight when you do the dislocates, especially when you do the still dislocates... You know, there was venues that I worked where it was semi-outdoors like amphitheaters and your hands would be sweaty. You know, it was-- I was always taught that you don’t make a decision in the middle of a trick; you decide before is it safe or is not safe and you decide before. You don’t stop in the middle because that can be disastrous.

Jo Reed: Clearly Margie didn’t start you at 32 feet.

Dolly Jacobs: No. Yeah, started five feet off the ground so my feet would just pass the ground and I learned everything down low and then we’d go up five feet and get used to the environment, then get used to it and be able to conquer it, go up another five feet and such up until 32 feet.

Jo Reed: Do you ever have to deal with nerves?

Dolly Jacobs: You know, we’re all born with a fear of heights-- some people more, some people less-- but it’s an instinct we’re born with and it’s a good thing ‘cause otherwise we’d be walking on the edge of buildings and not thinking a second about it. But it’s a good thing, it protects us. But you can conquer that with confidence and you earn confidence by repetition and by conquering it and by doing it over and over and over and being able to perform these feats and have that confidence and it-- and the fear dissipates. You never lose the respect for the height but the fear dissipates and basically if you go to a new venue and you’re in a new building-- whether a new building, new tent but it’s something new and different, your surroundings are different, the fear is a little bit more-- I don’t want to say “fear” because it’s more of… you’re more cautious when you’re in a new venue and once you get through the first couple of shows your confidence builds up; you know everything’s fine. There were times where I had to work very low because of the building and then the next venue that I had to work was very high, and going from very low to very high in a building that was maybe a hundred feet high although you weren’t hanging a hundred feet, you were still at your 32, it seemed like you were lost in space and it would give you this sense of weightlessness.

Jo Reed: I was just going to ask you if it feels differently when you’re up higher.

Dolly Jacobs: Believe it or not, the higher you go the less you feel the gravity for some reason and I don’t know if it’s just in your mind but you ask any aerialist and they’ll tell you the same. When you’re down low you feel heavier and when you’re up high you feel much lighter, and it’s always good to feel your weight. It’s kind of like a feather. A feather is hard to do tricks because it’s weightless. You understand?

Jo Reed: Yeah. So your weight actually helps you get the momentum going to perform the tricks.

Dolly Jacobs: Exactly, and you feel where you are.

Jo Reed: You performed the flyaway somersault, which I would like you first to describe what it is and then tell me the process of learning that.

Dolly Jacobs: Okay. Well, during this time, my first few years with the Roman ring act, I came to Ringling and I auditioned and my finish trick at the time was a one-knee spin. I was holding a rope, somebody would spin me from underneath and I was spinning very fast and I would grab my foot, put it over my head from the back and do a very fast spin. And I worked in a display with three other acts-- aerial acts and I was just thrilled to death just to be performing, but I knew again in my heart that I wanted to be a solo artist, I had to ask around, “What kind of finish trick could I do that would set me apart from everybody else and would give me solo status?” My--

Jo Reed: And solo status means it's just you in the ring?

Dolly Jacobs: Exactly. Just me, just me, no other acts performing. And my godmother’s father, Joseph Geiger, who was one of the original Wallendas that came over in the ‘20s-- as my dad came over in the ‘20s from Germany, both of them-- he remembered this trick that had been done and at that time it was 40 years prior. There were a few aerialists that did this trick, which is the full flyaway somersault. Some of them had done it from a trapeze and some did it from rings. Some used a net, some used a safety, some didn’t, and some of them got hurt very seriously. So it wasn’t very easy for me to find anybody to help me to do this trick but I knew that it was something that I wanted to do. So there was one bear man, a man

who worked a bear act-- his name was Wally Naughtin-- had seen it and he was an aerialist in his younger days so he was the only one that encouraged me. He was the one that said, “Dolly, you can do it” whereas the majority of everybody else was saying, “Don’t do it. It’s too dangerous. You’re going to kill yourself,” you know, but he was the one, “Go for it, Dolly. You can do it.” And so we started. It was basically trial and error, putting the web at different distances to see how it will work so it wasn’t as if somebody came and said, “Okay. Set this web,” which is the rope that I flew to, “at this distance.” I basically had to put it at different distances to see how it would work and I had a safety mechanic on so this was the only trick I- I’ve used with a safety mechanic because like I told you before, the whole act I learned down low and then went up and never used a safety mechanic, but this trick I had to have one because you can’t do it down low. And this is the type of trick that you would do in the flying trapeze with a net or with a safety.

Jo Reed: Once you mastered the trick you stopped using a safety, and you don't use a net.

Dolly Jacobs: Yes. So you can understand why people would not be that encouraging <laughs> for me to do it. And I never did tell my parents, you know, I didn’t want to scare them. I guess they heard through the grapevine and when I finally conquered it in the sense of doing-- I don’t know-- I can’t remember how many I would do without missing. And the act auditions were coming up for Ringling to have your placement in the show and so I came out and I was going to do my act and do this full flyaway somersault--

Jo Reed: And you’re flying from the rings to the rope.

Dolly Jacobs: To the rope, full flyaway-- completely releasing the rings, doing a somersault and catching this rope in front of you which is hung, and there’s usually somebody at the bottom holding the bottom of the rope just in case you’re short they can bring it in or if it-- if you’re flying too far forward they can take it out a little bit. It’s not really like a safety but it helps. And so yeah, I auditioned and got a full standing ovation from all the rest of the performers that were in the seats watching and from that time I was given solo status and worked my way up the ladder.

Jo Reed: And you do work on aerial straps.

Dolly Jacobs: Aerial straps started back in 1984. I met my husband. He was on the blue unit of the Ringling-- he did an incredible cradle act-- and 1994 was my last year on Ringling. We met again practicing in Sailor Circus Arena and our romance started so we had a long-distance romance. He was traveling throughout the United States and so was I. And we really wanted to be able to be on the same show because it’s a long season. And generally most circuses will hire a-- one featured aerialist, whether it be male or female, and so we were most of the time on different shows because we were both featured aerialists. So we thought why don’t we do something together and then we can work together, and he later had seen this strap act that was done by a single man and it was really incredible and he said, “Maybe we could do this act together as a love story.” And so we hired Gilles Croix, who was the artistic-- original artistic director for Cirque du Soleil, and Jean Leger, a choreographer from the Winnipeg Ballet came down and we put this act together with their help. Truly it was wonderful. We worked to an incredible violin concerto, “Thais Meditation”-- Thais... very balletic and it was beautiful. We worked approximately one year together. And I was actually doing the straps and the rings. We weren't married at the time, and I took 1990 off to stay home and take care of my dad. I flew up on the Fourth of July to visit Pedro on the Big Apple Circus. Lo and behold, he proposed on Fourth of July, free fireworks, <laughs>

and unfortunately though two days later in his aerial act that he was doing, this cloud swing act, which-- he also did an incredible jump from this cloud swing— The gentleman that was hooking up the rigging, which is something we normally do ourselves, but his last finish trick had to be hooked up by one of the workers and unfortunately this worker tied the string which is-- holds up the rope but he forgot to hook up the bungee which takes over after the string breaks. Well, this particular show as I’m sitting in the audience the string broke and he came straight down so both of his ankles were broken very badly, exploded. The good ankle had 19 screws and two plates; the other one was pretty much pulverized so he had that one fused. He did perform his cloud swing act again just to say he could do it but he had a dream of having a circus school. We decided to put our forces together and think about the future and, “How are we going to be able to give back what we’ve learned through all these years in the circus world?” And that’s when we decided to start the National Circus School of Performing Arts. That was in 1997, ’98. The National Circus School of Performing Arts is quite a mouthful, and so we changed our name to Circus Sarasota.

Jo Reed: You didn’t do aerial straps-- if I got this right-- until you were doing a duet with Pedro.

Dolly Jacobs: Correct.

Jo Reed: But then you began doing it as a solo act.

Dolly Jacobs: Correct. And the reason I started doing solo is because we started Circus Sarasota and Pedro was running the organization, and he was running the wench for me, which is the machine that takes me up and down. So there were times that I worked alone and then there were times we hired a Russian performer, a friend of ours, Uri Ridgecoff [ph?], and we worked together for a few years off and on, and basically because I’m a staple in the show I try to change my costume, change my music, and change the act as much as possible to make it new for the audience.

Jo Reed: It looks like you’re flying on those straps. It’s like ballet. It’s amazing.

Dolly Jacobs: It looks very easy and it’s meant to look easy--

Jo Reed: But I know it’s not. And it also requires enormous strength you have to mask.

Dolly Jacobs: Yes. Basically you have to conquer the strength, and the way I do that is that I would get down from the act if I’m performing, and I would go directly in the back and do chin-ups straightaway and leg-ups, so I built my endurance. If I was practicing to do a certain engagement, even now I’ll go through the act two or three times in a row back to back so that when I do it the one time in front of the audience, you’re not out of breath, you have reserve, and that’s what I try to teach the kids when I’m teaching is that, “After we finish practicing we’re gonna do strength training.” If you have the strength, and this is another thing that’s important, is that, God forbid something should happen in the middle of a trick, say, on the rings and you lose your timing, that force as you’re swinging can pull you off of the rings unless you have the strength to hold yourself in that position. You know, it’s a safety issue.

Jo Reed: You performed at the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo, and I'd like you to describe that festival and also explain its significance.

Dolly Jacobs: The International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo was started by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. What they did is they rounded up the best of the best in the world of acts, about 40 each year and they would compete. We would compete. And it wasn’t categorized in the sense of animal acts, acrobatic, aerial. It was everybody competed. There was a jury. The jury decides who wins. The top prize is the Golden Clown. The second prize is the Silver Clown. They have La Dame de Cirque, which is Lady of the Circus. And it’s still ongoing, and it’s quite an honor to be invited to be there.

Jo Reed: You're one of the very few people who have been invited twice.

Dolly Jacobs: Correct. I went in 1977. But the incredible part about going in 1977 was that my dad was there. He performed also with his little car. For me it was a memory that will last in my heart forever. He walked me into the ring and took me out of the ring-- just incredible. I won La Dame de Cirque, which is Lady of the Circus, and I won from the City of Monaco an incredible award, a beautiful statue. So I was just tickled pink. So as the time went by, years went by I mastered this full flyaway somersault and they asked me to come back and I was like, whoa. You know, now-- because I felt I was still green with my act when I went the first time, so I was ready. Ready, willing, and able-- So I went exactly 10 years later in 1988, and won the Silver Clown, and La Dame de Cirque again.

Jo Reed: You mentioned Circus Sarasota and I’d like to talk about that more specifically. What are the goals for Circus Sarasota? What did you have in mind when you created this?

Dolly Jacobs: Basically to be able to use the circus arts and to give back to the community and to be able to use the art of circus to influence the elderly, to encourage the children, to use the circus art as a learning tool and build self-confidence. About three years ago, we umbrella'd with the Circus Arts Conservatory. About four years ago we took over the Sailor Circus, youth circus that we have here that’s over 66 years old that I mentioned earlier. So we use the Circus Arts Conservatory as the mother ship, if you will, and underneath that we have Circus Sarasota with our performances every year under the big top and in the museum and different venues, and then we have our outreach programs, which is Laughter Unlimited, going into the nursing homes and retirement centers, and we have our educational program that’s going into schools and using the art of circus to enhance learning, and then we have the incredible Sailor Circus. All of these are underneath the umbrella now of the Circus Arts Conservatory.

Jo Reed: Plus you have a circus.

Dolly Jacobs: And we have Circus Sarasota. Some people know us only for that.

Jo Reed: What do you think is the appeal of the circus? Even the saying, "when the circus comes to town" and what that means for people. What is the appeal, do you think?

Dolly Jacobs: I think the appeal of the circus is that it’s family entertainment. It’s magical in the sense people are doing things that you couldn’t even imagine somebody doing. The circus has been a part of Americana going back into the 1700s. Back in the day circus was the entertainment. I think what’s so incredible about it is that you can get thrills, you can laugh, you can be in awe and you can just be mesmerized-- especially in the tent. You walk in and it’s a magical world. You’re transformed into a different world. I’m just really blessed to be brought up in the circus world because not only from the audience aspect but also being an artist it’s truly a blessing, you know, because nothing else can compare.

Jo Reed: And that leads right to my next question is, what do you think the circus arts can teach us?

Dolly Jacobs: Well, I think a lot of the circus arts can teach discipline, self-accomplishment, getting along with others, trusting others, pushing yourself past a limit, you know, because you have a goal. It’s incredible. And you meet people from all around the world because the circus is an international group of-- we would call it a family, a circus family, because circus is international. And you can work with artists that are from other side of the world, and we do all the time, and that’s why I speak fluent Bulgarian. <laughs> I can read and write in Bulgarian. I speak a little Polish and German and Spanish. It’s an international world, but the circus world-- there’s a common bond that we all share. We all work to do the best act we can, and it’s basically the same steps to get there: hard work, perseverance, determination, and passion.

Jo Reed: And then finally, Dolly, you’ve won so many awards in your lifetime I can't even begin to name them all, but can you tell me what it meant to receive the National Heritage Fellowship Award?

Dolly Jacobs: You know, it’s hard to find words to describe when I heard that I was getting this award because my first instinct is I’m not deserving. There are so many great performers that laid the path for the rest of us that struggled throughout the years with incredible acts, laid the foundation on which we stand, and it’s in respect and honor of them that I accept this award because, again, I wouldn’t be where I am had they not laid the path for the rest of us and for me, to inspire me as a little girl looking up at the girl on the flying trapeze. It’s an incredible, incredible honor not only for, you know, myself, but the circus industry. The recognition that the circus industry is getting is just incredible and well deserved, long overdue. And it’s a given. Circus is an art form that’s handed down from one generation to the next. It has for centuries. And it’s so wonderful to be the first circus artist to be able to accept this award, really, really, really humbling.

Jo Reed: So well deserved, Dolly. Congratulations.

Dolly Jacobs: Thank you.

Jo Reed: And thank you for coming into the studio and giving me your time.

Dolly Jacobs: My pleasure. Thank you.

That was circus aerialist and 2015 National Heritage Fellow, Dolly Jacobs. You can watch Dolly fly through the air at the free 2015 National Heritage Fellows Concert. Join us October 2 at 8:00 pm at the Lisner Auditorium here in Washington, DC. And if you can’t make the trip, not to worry-- we’re broadcasting it live. Go to arts.gov for information about ticketing and the webcast.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Thanks for listening.

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Most kids run away from home to join the circus. For Dolly Jacobs, it was a family affair.