When you're a 3-foot-4 teenager, you're a prime target for bullying. Paulo dos Santos, a performer in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, learned this in his native Brazil when he tried to attend a school teaching the art of capoeira.
Capoeira is a martial art that combines dance, acrobatics and music. It is said to have been developed by slaves to learn self-defense under the noses of their masters by disguising it as entertainment. Participants use their feet to kick the head of their opponent, for instance.
Dos Santos was rejected by other students because he was a "little person" and they thought his short stature would keep him from learning the moves. "At the beginning, I felt so bad. I started crying," says dos Santos, who is now 30 and married with three children. But his parents pushed him. They told him, "You have dreams, you need to follow your dreams."
Now, dos Santos uses elements of the acrobatics he learned in his Ringling Bros. stunts. And he likes to pass this message on to kids in the towns where the circus plays: "Believe in your strength," says dos Santos, whose first language is Portuguese. He says he proved to everyone that he could do it. "You have something in your heart, you follow your heart," he says.
Partners in crime
Dos Santos and ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson essentially run the "Legends" circus show. Dos Santos is Iverson's sidekick. He serves as the show's "Legends Seeker," trying to uncover the folklore of the circus during the performances that begin tonight and continue through Monday at Nassau Coliseum.
"He finds himself in all sorts of mischief and adventures," Iverson says. Dos Santos winds up in a simulated hot air balloon and chases a fake lion.
The Iverson-dos Santos team is like Mutt and Jeff -- at 6-foot-5, Iverson, 38, is nearly twice as tall as dos Santos. They have a running spiel as they take circusgoers through the daring acts of the lion and tiger trainer, the horses and riders, and acrobatic feats such as stacking 20 riders on two moving bicycles.
As part of the circus' visit to the New York area, dos Santos and Iverson visited a public school in Brooklyn to talk about bullying in a program called "The Legend Inside of You! Anti-Bullying Seminar."
"It's not a show. It's an event," Iverson says of the circus. "We're coming to your town in the world's largest privately owned train. We are basically bringing a city to your city. We're riding down Main Street with elephants and horses and you name it. Our clowns go to children's hospitals to bring smiles to these kids. We go to soup kitchens, we go to Boys and Girls Clubs."
Dos Santos is the perfect performer to spread the anti-bullying message, Iverson says. "Paulo is a walking poster child. He has such an impact.
"He reminds kids it is not up to society, it is not up to anybody else to determine your dream," Iverson says.
WHAT “Legends” Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
WHEN | WHERE Tonight through Monday at Nassau Coliseum, 1255 Hempstead Tpke., Uniondale
INFO $15 to $80; free with ticket is the interactive All Access Pre-Show, beginning an hour before show time. Families learn juggling skills, meet clowns and see an Asian elephant up close; Ringmaster’s Zone gives a behind-the-scenes look at the circus. Tickets to Ringmaster’s Zone are limited to 100 per show, cost $150 and include front-row seats; 800-745- 3000, ringling.com