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American Routes Shortcuts: Dolly Jacobs

This is American Routes, our program with words and music as a metaphor or extension of life in the circus, where not everyone is a man on the flying trapeze. We’re going to swing out with Dolly Jacobs, who was named a National Heritage Fellow in 2015. A Ringling Brothers aerialist, Dolly was born into a circus family. At fourteen, she learned what it would take to distinguish herself and the risks involved.

Dolly Jacobs: My godmother Margie was a ballet dancer from New York, so she gave me the ABCs of ballet in the air. The gymnastics and the aerial and just having the circus, in the sense of being around the big show of Ringling Brothers and watching the professional performers perform, and it planted a seed in me, that this was what I wanted to do. And they have on Ringling Brothers chorus girls–we called them showgirls–and they did basically aerial ballet on ropes and dancing and riding horses and elephants. But it was a great learning experience for me. I was very shy in school, so going from public school into this magical world of the circus, Ringling Brothers, the Greatest Show on Earth, was just another world.

DJ: We crisscrossed America. 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: going through the Redwood Forest, and up through Northern California and Washington, beautiful down San Diego all the way to Hershey, Pennsylvania, St. Louis, Chicago...

DJ: The rings when I worked them, they were 32 feet high, 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 this is all with no safety, no net, and just hanging by your fingers. Anything you do in the air is dangerous. In the rings and the trapeze, the flying trapeze, the single trapeze, you have to work the swing, you have to pump it to keep it up. The higher the swing, the better. At the end of the swing, there’s a dead point where you’re weightless, and that’s where you do your trick.

DJ: You know we’re all born with a fear of heights, some people more some, people less. It protects us. You can conquer that with confidence, and you earn confidence by doing it over and over and over, and the fear dissipates.

DJ: 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?” And my godmother’s father, Joseph Geiger, who was one of the original Wallendas that came over in the ‘20s, he remembered this trick that had been done. 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 there was one bear man, a man who worked a bear act–his name was Wally Naughton–had seen it. And he was an aerialist in his younger days, so he was the only one that encouraged me, whereas the majority of everybody else was saying, “Don’t do it, it’s too dangerous, you’re going to kill yourself,” but he was the one, “Go for it Dolly, you can do it!” And I never did tell my parents, you know, I didn’t want to scare them, and 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. I believe it was probably two or three years after I started the Roman Ring act that I put in the full flyaway somersault.

DJ: 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. The circus has been a part of Americana going back into the 1700s. You can get thrills. You can laugh. You can be in awe, and you can just be mesmerized. I’m just really blessed to be brought up in the circus world because nothing else can compare.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.