The Three-Ringed Life: A Family Act
This series of interviews explores the lives of people in the circus and their experiences on the road. “The Three-Ringed Life” reflects the three social arenas: the personal, the professional, and the space in which the two intersect. When seen together, the three rings create a narrative as vibrant and varied as a three-ring circus.
Does an injury end a career in the circus? For Danny Rodriguez, a fifth-generation circus performer born to aerialist parents, nothing would stop him. Since an accident twenty years ago, he has refocused his interest from under the spotlight to behind the scenes. Now he is the operations manager of UniverSoul Circus.
Rodriguez’s resilience, positive attitude, and love for his family and the circus shines through in this excerpted interview. In describing his circus journey, he makes it clear that he has not allowed injury to dampen his love for the culture, but that his family has always been his greatest love.
How did you get involved in the circus?
I was born in Mexico City. I was actually not supposed to be born in Mexico, but my parents were performing in Mexico, and I came out a couple weeks early. I grew up in the United States, mostly in Florida, but traveling you kind of grow up across the country, because we normally traveled anywhere from eight to ten months out of the year. But our home is in Sarasota, Florida.
I’m fifth generation in the circus. My father and mother were both circus performers. They were both aerialists. My father is Mexican, and my mother is German.
Were you also an aerialist?
Yes. I started performing at the age of eight. I was on the flying trapeze with my whole family. We performed with many small circuses, we performed with circuses in Europe, we performed with Ringling Bros.—too many to name.
Then I had an accident, September 25, 1997. My brother and I were performing an act called “The Wheel of Death” in Tallahassee, Florida. We had a slip-and-fall accident, and I broke my back, my ankles, my heels, and my chest. It was a quite difficult recovery. After that I still performed for a couple of years, and then started leaning my way out of performing—staying in the circus business, but more so in the management side of things, operations and logistics, and not so much flying through the air, risking my life for every performance.
You continued to tour with the circus—what was it like to travel?
It’s an amazing experience, because you get to see things or places that people can only read about and only see in books or movies. I’ve pretty much been to every monument or every city in the country.
When my daughter was in kindergarten, they had a show-and-tell day in class, and they rolled down the map of the United States and asked the kids, “show us where you’ve been or where you’d like to go.” When my daughter’s turn came, she said, “I went to the Space Needle, I went to the Statue of Liberty, I went to Hollywood, and I’ve been here, and I’ve been there.” She’d been, at five years old, to more places than most people probably will in their lifetime.
I’ve taken advantage of the traveling part, and I’ve used it as a learning experience both for her and myself. The traveling can get old, it can get tiring, and you miss home, but you have to look at it for what it is, and it’s just an amazing experience.
Did you ever feel homesick when you traveled?
As a younger child you don’t, because it’s so cool that you’re always out and about, in all these different places. I think I get more homesick now as an adult, because you learn to appreciate a lot more things in life that are beyond materialistic.
My parents, they live in Florida and they’re getting older, so I would like to spend more time with them. My daughter has a two-year-old, so I’m a grandpa. I miss my grandson. I would like to spend more time with him. So I think I get more homesick now that I’m older than when I was younger. When you’re a kid you don’t really think about that stuff.
What traditions did you and your family carry while on the road so much?
Christmas is one of the things that we’ve always done, no matter where we were. As we’ve gotten older it’s gotten harder, because I have two other brothers and five sisters, so it’s eight of us all together, and we’re all spread out. Everyone’s all over and has their own families, but one tradition that we’ve always had is that we always spent Christmas together, no matter what.
We would have our Christmas dinner, and then we would all bring our gifts out to my parents’ living room with, like, hundreds of gifts because there were so many kids, and then we would open our presents together on Christmas morning. So that’s the one thing that we always did no matter who was where and where our lives took us throughout the year. That time of the year was when we were always together.
I still to this day try to keep that tradition. It’s much more difficult, but we still have Christmas dinner at my house every year.
Did the circus culture also feel like a family?
Absolutely. When you’re traveling with so many people, for eight, nine, ten months out of the year, it becomes a big family because you’re with them pretty much 24/7. You stay in the same places, travel on the same bus, you come to work together, you go back together, you eat together. You establish so many relationships that last a lifetime. You meet people from all walks of life, from all over the world, and you learn about different cultures. So it’s really great for both sides.
Julia Berley is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a rising junior at Emory College of Emory University, double majoring in history and psychology.