Daredevil Benny Ibarra won't perform in Circus Xtreme at Nassau Coliseum this week without getting a blessing before each show from his daughter Chelsea, 8. She will make the sign of the cross on his head and chest to protect him. So will his younger daughter, Valeria, 5.
"I can't go to work without them doing it," says Ibarra, 29, who performs high above the arena in the Pendulum of Steel. "I work a very hard, dangerous act. You're risking your life every day. In this act specifically, you don't have a safety device or net underneath you."
Kids who have tickets for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show may hold their breath in awe watching a stranger do flips and somersaults in the air on the inside and outside of a whirling wheel. But for Chelsea and Valeria Ibarra, it's Daddy way up there.
The same goes for Sasha Dolgikh, 9, whose parents, Dima Dolgikh, 41, and Nadia Tarasova, 35, are both in the Iron Jaw act during the All-Access Pre-Show that's free to ticket holders the hour before the circus begins. "Part of the act is my mom hangs from my dad's teeth," Sasha says. "When I see them, sometimes I think, 'He's never going to do it,' but he actually does."
Tarasova also performs in "The Orb," an aerial acrobatic act during the circus show. Other performers -- including Taba Maluenda, the Big Cat Trainer -- are also parents of school-age children.
The show also includes acts such as dancing elephants, clowns, a human cannonball, and trampoline and high-wire numbers.
HOME IS A TRAIN CAR
Growing up with a mom or dad who is a circus performer has its literal ups and downs. The upside: "The dream of most children is to go to the circus. For kids whose families are in the circus, it's a dream come true. They live in the circus," says Ibarra, himself a fourth-generation circus performer originally from Mexico City.
During a tour, the kids' days are in some ways similar to any child's, Sasha says. Take his morning routine: "I brush my teeth, take off my pajamas," he begins. But he's getting ready for the day in the train car that is his family's traveling quarters. School is a classroom set up on whatever grounds the show is at that particular week.
Two teachers travel with the show. Some kids may envy the daily school schedule: These 11 kids in kindergarten through eighth grade only go for four hours a day, either 1 to 5 p.m. or 5 to 9 p.m. Their school days start late because their parents are usually performing at night, so the family doesn't get to bed until midnight on show dates, says teacher Cindy Trent, 53, who used to teach in public schools in Florida before joining the circus staff.
The downside: The circus staff is usually off on Mondays and Tuesdays. That means the kids go to school on weekends. They also have school year-round -- no summer vacations during the circus' two-year tour commitment, Trent says.
Ibarra says he knows what it's like for his children -- he also has a son, Benny Jr., age 1 -- to grow up in the circus environment. Ibarra's great-grandfather was a strongman in the days when performers would lift enormous barbells. His grandfather was a flying-trapeze artist. His father thought that was too safe -- the trapeze artists have a net under them -- and wanted something more scary, Ibarra says. So he embraced the Pendulum of Steel act.
Ibarra has gotten hurt -- years ago, with a different circus. "A miscalculation of speed," he says. He fell during a show and the wheel hit his head, splitting his skull "like a coconut" and requiring "a lot of stitches."
So he knows how the kids may sometimes have mixed emotions. "It's a strange feeling, because you know it's your dad," Ibarra says. "You want to see him do it, but you don't, too."
When Circus Xtreme comes to Nassau Coliseum this week, circus-goers will see six double-humped camels with six women who do acrobatic tricks on the backs of the animals. This is a new act for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
Ringling traveled the world trying to find the most extreme acts possible for this performance, hence the name. Other acts include BMX bicycle riders, street dancers, and gymnasts who perform on slacklines.
Old favorites include Taba Maluenda, the Big Cat Trainer, who kisses his tigers; Ringling's Asian elephants; Clown Alley; a human cannonball who rockets more than 100 feet across the arena; the Danguir troupe high-wire act, and more. Ringmaster David Shipman is master of ceremonies for all the action.
A free preshow one hour before the performance lets ticket holders get up close and personal with some of the performers, including clowns and acrobats. With intermission, the show itself runs about 21/2 hours.
WHAT Circus Xtreme
WHEN | WHERE Wednesday through Sunday at Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale
INFO $15-$150; 800-745-3000; ringling.com