My Life in the Circus, Part 1

Part One
February 2005
originally published in
The Chronicles Magazine

Imagine this fantasy: You, small town dancer from Texas, in Europe, performing on a plexi-glass floor with stage lights under the floor focused up onto you! AND starting the show with mystical fog floating all around you as the curtains open and 800 pairs of amazed, wide-open eyes staring at you standing there in front of a cobalt blue peacock feather backdrop???

This was not a dream. I lived this fantasy for two months in the summer of 1982. It was an experience that would change my life. How does one get involved with a European circus/theatrical show? Only through good friends, a mentor named Bert, and, of course, kismet. Roshan, a former Los Angeles dancer was a good friend of internationally known, Roman "Bert" Balladine of San Francisco. Roshan was living in Europe and had created a dance character known as "The Flower of the Orient," for a circus show. She had hurt her ankle and the dance job went to the beautiful, dark-haired, blue-eyed, Feyrouz, a.k.a. Patricia Conant, an American dancer. Feyrouz was getting quite burned out with the torrid schedule of dancing 7 days a week for weeks on end and so they were looking for a summer replacement. Ta-Dah! Bert suggested me, since I had dark hair, too. Bert and I had been like family since the first time we met . . . me in a dorky, home made green costume, and him, the famous seminar teacher I could barely speak to I was so shy. Over time we had gotten to admire and know each other better after a series of shows as dance partners. A string of transatlantic phone calls were made and photos inspected. Roshan and her boss, the formidable Mr. Harry Owens of Cologne, Germany selected me to play, "The Flower." Just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I found myself whisked off to a land I never thought I would ever visit, especially as a hired performer! This was my first trip overseas and I was reassured that "everyone spoke English in Germany." Right.

My travel to Hamburg, Germany included car, airplane, bus, subway train, and taxi; I arrived looking quite unlike my publicity photos . . . more like a disheveled hamster than a glam belly dancer. Mr. Owens took one look at me and was not impressed at all. He immediately turned me over to Feyrouz to clean up. She wanted me to be accepted since she wanted to leave in three days!

The very day I arrived, I was seated to watch the matinee show. The Story Teller, an ancient looking, melodic-voiced actor named Ernest Lenart, began the story of the search for moon pearls. The whole show was in German. That trip had taken almost two days to complete and I had been so nervous and excited that I had not slept. Various characters came onto the opulent stage . . . sword swallowers, magicians, sorcerers, three headed dragons . . . and soon, I couldn't help myself . . . I was zzzzzz . . . asleep in the front row. Unfortunately for me, Mr. Owens decided I should be made up to perform the very next show that very evening! Poor Feyrouz. What a challenge for her. She nervously made my face up and whispered cues in English to me while I appeared as the Flower of The Orient in the first number. I danced three minutes to an Eddie "The Sheik" Kochak song. Then I ran off to a costume change, then I was the magician's assistant in a cat costume, another costume change, then a background chorus line spirit during the glass walker's act, another costume change, and then I danced with a sword and slayed a three-headed dragon, and then a 30 second costume change into the first belly dance costume for the finale! Mr. Owens grudgingly approved of my dancing and was especially happy that I could play finger cymbals. But then he told Feyrouz to take me to the salon the next day and get my black, long, straight hair permed into curls! When I came out the next day, my hairdo was huge! I was a Latina Diana Ross! I could turn my head and two seconds later the rest of my hair would follow.

The Salome Company supplied the music and the costumes. These costumes were designed for the whole cast by Maria Lucas of Spain and were a strong highlight of he show. They were valued at over $50,000. After continuous daily wearing they would all have to be replaced before the year was out. The cast traveled as a group in 15 trailers called "caravans." These artists were from all over the world. It was the first time I had ever seen people from a communist country. (They looked just like the rest of us!) These circus people are another society. They know each other from other shows and have spent their whole life around their caravans and this gypsy type of show business. My caravan was large enough for one standing adult or two seated adults . . . no more. During our stay in Hamburg, the caravans were parked in the Mallersall---a large complex of old warehouses. This area was set-aside especially for artists to work, paint, sculpt, rehearse plays, design sets, etc. The central buildings were for taking showers and fetching water for our caravans.

The Salome tent seated 800 people and had both heating and cooling. This "traumtheater" or "dream theater" was held in a splendid, baroque, Turkish-style circus. This tent had antique, beveled glass doors and swirling turrets on top of the building. At that time the tent was completely broken down and set up in each different cities. It was a tremendous effort. Today I hear that the Salome Tent is permanently set up on a barge and floats up and down the Rhine River, docking in all the river cities in Europe. Just walking into the tent was a visual delight. The inside was draped in hundreds of yards of gold and silver lame' with thousands of large, scattered silver sequins sewn throughout. Several of us were in full costume, greeting the audience as they walked in by placing a sequined star on their cheek. The pre-show included mimes, clowns, and me, The Flower of the Orient!

I found myself so lonely after Feyrouz left for her vacation. There was no one that spoke fluent English. If only I could have spoken some German, or Turkish, or Arabic, or Chinese, or, or, or . . . My only other language skill was Spanish and my boss, Mr. Owens, also spoke Spanish and that was how we communicated. I bought German grammar books and started studying. All the cues in the show were in German and I had no clue what was up or down! Ernest Lenart, a handsome cross between Orson Wells and Santa Claus, took me under his wing and explained the story line of the show in English. On the fourth of July, he treated me to chili con carne because "you must miss it so much." I was so touched since finding a restaurant in Hamburg that serves chili con carne is not easy. His melodic voice told the story of the search by a prince throughout the Orient for moon pearls. He runs into troubles but is always helped by "der Gaukler," a variety of artists. All the performers performed their specialties in mime, extraordinary costumes. This circus show featured no animals (except for some goldfish).

To be continued . . .
In the next installment I will describe the show, performing tricks I learned and how being a gypsy in the circus changed my life.