The first time I saw her she was waiting for her cue in a full-length lavender sequined cape trimmed in white feathers, and a tiara perched above her perfect pony tail. The arena went dark, I heard my father’s drum roll, and she stepped out onto the track where spotlights from every angle lit her up like the second coming. Music filled the air and she glided into the center ring with her arms outstretched to receive her audience. Dolly Jacobs was the Audrey Hepburn of Ringling Bros., the goddess of the roman rings, and one of the key individuals who prevented me from falling into the ass crack of a stupid life.
I was riveted along with the crowd as she handed her glittering headpiece to a person in the shadows and unfastened her cape at the neck to let it dramatically fall into the arms of another shadow person. The only thing left was a skimpy two-piece silver costume and the body of a gold medal gymnast/supermodel.
She stepped out of her stilettos and began her assent up the web to the roman rings using only her arms to climb. Her legs were extended at a perfect 90-degree angle. The next eight minutes were a dazzling display of strength, beauty and fearlessness that made her one of the greatest aerialists of all time, and my everlasting hero.
Backstage Dolly was a very private person. Part of that probably came from being the daughter of the world’s most famous clown, Lou Jacobs. It’s like being the President’s daughter for the rest of us. There’s a certain reputation the world expects you to uphold, even if that world fits into a coliseum in Tucson.
When she wasn’t working, she was suiting up at the end of an already physically exhausting day to practice. Otherwise, she was in her dressing room designing and sewing new costumes or dreaming up new ideas for her act.
Part of her allure was the masterful way she negotiated the fine line between appearing unapproachable while presenting just enough of a smile to let you know she would be the best friend you ever had if you dared to get close enough to find out. You could always tell when Dolly was in the vicinity. People parted to clear her path the way schools of fish divide when larger fish swim through. Silent and choreographed. Men respected her, women trusted her, and children wanted to grow up and be her. Even the boys.
My father, who had the highest standards of anyone I knew, summed her up like this, “Drop dead gorgeous and strong as an ox.” I could tell by the reverence in his voice those two things were something to strive for if it took the rest of my life.
I spent that first summer stalking her and trying to find the courage to ask for her autograph in my circus program. The only person allowed in her dressing room was Antoinette Concello, a tiny woman in her 70’s. She watched Dolly’s performances and critiqued her all the way back to her dressing room until the door closed behind them.
Antoinette was a trapeze artist in the 1920’s with The Flying Concellos, and was first woman to execute the triple somersault. She was inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame in 1963 as the “greatest woman flyer of all time.” It was Antoinette who paced underneath Dolly during her practices demanding to see this or that, and barking at her to point her toes or change her body in some way.
Dolly didn’t tolerate much nonsense from children on the show but she was always kind to us. If we got too loud outside her dressing room, she would open the door and give us one slightly raised eyebrow. We fled the scene. Not out of fear, but respect.
Most of the showgirls sauntered around backstage half-naked and enjoying the attention. Dolly was always covered from her shoulders to her knees until she was in the spotlight. I remember that specifically because one time she wore shorts to the arena on move-in day. It was like Grease when Olivia-Newton John came out at the end of the school year dressed in spandex. It wasn’t the desired effect in this case. It was just the effect. People are probably still talking about it.
When I finally ambushed her outside her dressing room for the autograph, Dolly was in her signature terry-cloth robe still glistening with sweat from performing. The down side of being a stalker is that you spend so much time alone when the time finally comes for you to act, you’ve almost lost all command of the language. You have to rely on sign language, which was my open program and my pen. I’m sure she knew I’d been following her around half the summer and had watched every one of her performances. Maybe that’s why she invited me inside her mystical chamber to sign it.
Beyond the threshold was a shrine to all things worthwhile: a trunk full of rhinestone costumes, multiple perfectly brushed falls and wigs attached to styrofoam heads, a row of sparkling stilettos, a train case full of glittery make-up, and a little dog on his tiny bed. I was silent while she warned Cookie to be nice, offered me a Nutter Butter, signed my program and smiled. I’m sure words were spoken, but I don’t recall any of them. I just remember the outcome. I was invited to come back to her dressing room and select the costume she would wear for her next performance.
I left her dressing room that day feeling three inches taller, beaming with a new sense of pride and purpose. For the remainder of the summer I skipped through the halls of coliseums all over the country, coming and going from her dressing room, fussing over her costumes, befriending Cookie, listening to her conversations with Antoinette, and eating Nutter Butter cookies. I hated peanut butter, but I’d never been happier, or felt luckier.
Saying good-bye at the end of the summer was very difficult. The circus was stable and peaceful. When elephants and tigers are involved, everything runs on a tight schedule. There is no chaos. There is no wondering what will happen next. You can plan your day by the whistle blows, what the showgirls are wearing, and which animals are staged at the back door. It’s safe.
Thanks to Dolly I carried that sense of security and belonging throughout the next year at time when I needed it most. When I got home, it was in a new state, and my sister had moved away to live with her father. I swallowed my heartbreak by drawing pictures of Dolly and emulating her on the swings and monkey bars at recess at my new school.
I counted down the final days of school the way other kids count the 12 days before Christmas. As soon as I got back to the circus that next summer my first order of business was to find Dolly and let her know I was back and ready to serve. We were nearing her dressing room when my dad explained she had hurt her back and hadn’t worked the last few cities of the tour. This strange turn of events led to one of the greatest experiences of my childhood. Dolly invited me to practice with her while she prepared to return to work. The conditions were as follows: show up every day whenever she said to, be properly outfitted in a leotard or bathing suit, and promise to work my very hardest no matter how tired or disappointed I became. I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
I showed up on time the next day wearing my hot pink bikini ready to work. She nodded and we started warming up. It’s not easy to keep up with someone who’s a cross between a contortionist, an Olympic gymnast, and Wonder Woman. We started with handstands. She bent my toes back for a stronger point, poked my stomach to make my back straighter, and ultimately made me hold it without my feet touching the wall until I could hear my heartbeat in my temples. We moved onto splits and she pushed my shoulders back until I was almost laying down on my back leg. We did arm and shoulder stretches, and finally back bends. She tapped my hands and feet closer and closer together until they finally touched.
Then she got the Borax soap out of her steamer trunk and started toward the bathroom. I ran along beside her. While scrubbing her hands and wrists she concisely explained why it was important. Hands must be clean before you touch the rings because dirty rings are not glamorous. Hands must be thoroughly dried before you chalk them. Chalk is critical because moisture on your hands cause calluses to rip open and bleed. I scrubbed my hands like I was washing away murder evidence. She nodded again, handed me a towel, and then personally escorted me into my dream of touching my very first set of roman rings.
We started on the practice rings backstage. She called out commands and I did them. I was so relieved I had put in all that time practicing during recess. It was the only way I stood a chance of not falling, or worse, disappointing Dolly.
The day finally came when it was time to hang the rings at the back door of coliseum, the area large enough to drive in trucks with props and animals. There were 15 feet between grown-up toes and the ground, and we had to climb a web to get to them. Once I was hanging from the rings and the web was taken away, she started right away with commands. I performed each one, repeating them at her whim until I was sweaty and exhausted. She called for a break and I collapsed into a lazy seated position in the rings.
“Sit up straight and point your toes!”
I jerked upright and pointed my toes.
“Close your legs – you look like a frog!”
I closed my legs and the rings pinched my thighs so hard I almost vomited.
“The rings are pinching me!”
“Smile…You have to look happy.”
I closed my legs and smiled with tears in my eyes. That’s when I realized that’s how she had earned the two perpetual dark spots the size of quarters on the inside of her thighs.
Then I moved on to performing the tricks while swinging. The height of the ceiling made the swing almost as wide as it was when the rings were hanging in the arena. I’m not sure why my dad allowed this. The only thing under me was concrete and I wasn’t wearing a safety belt. I guess that’s why there are no photos? He had both hands free to catch me?
Dolly handed me the web and within three pulls she had me in a full swing. That moment of flying through the air looking my idol right in the face was like having a metric ton of fairy dust dumped on my head.
Doing tricks while swinging is much harder than it is while stationary because you have roller-coaster-belly while you’re trying to concentrate. I did each one as she ordered, trying to remember to keep my toes pointed and my mouth smiling. Weighing my progress, she called out the final command of the day. I lowered myself into a full split keeping one arm free to do the patented circus ta-da! pose. Dolly smiled that beautiful movie star smile and nodded with approval. It was one of the proudest moments in my life.
Dolly got her act back together, literally, in record time. So, in her free time she perfected a new death-defying dismount. You can see it here starting at 6:25.
I sat ringside during all her practices vacillating between pre-mourning her death and being exhilarated by the fact that my personal hero was going to be the first woman, and second human, in history to perform this trick. She opened the first town with that stunning feat and propelled herself to a whole new level of aerial greatness and circus stardom.
By the end of that second summer I had witnessed everything I need to know to be the very best woman I can be.
Never underestimate the importance of a first impression, or your wardrobe selection for same.
The best way to enter a room full of strangers is smiling and assuming everyone in it will be thrilled to see you.
Being aloof is not a crime. Let people earn your trust and respect. Make sure you earn theirs in return.
Beauty by itself means nothing without strength.
Even at the top of your game, humbly receive the advice of those who have gone before you.
When you’ve mastered changing people’s behavior with a facial expression, you’re ready to take over a small country, or raise children.
People will be excited to commit themselves to your plan if you’ve demonstrated you’re asking no more of them than you ask of yourself.
Teach children discipline at an early age so they’ll already have it when they need it most.
Something as simple was washing your hands is sacred when you know it’s getting you closer to your dream.
Prepare yourself for that moment on stage – you never know when it might come.
Let people discover your scars on their own.
Truly loving someone means letting them follow their dreams, even if it kills them.
If you can make a child feel important, you’re doing the work of angels.
Appreciate the spotlight and applause when it comes – you’re earned it.
Push past the pinches in life – they create the marks of champions.
You’re this kind of hero to someone, too. You may not be aware of it, but some quiet kid is watching you and taking it all in. Everything you say, everything you do. They hold onto every smile you give them.
Without you they would be lost.
Because of you, they will find their way.