Saturday, January 30, 2010

....Circus families embrace life on the road....

With a 2-year-old little boy propped comfortably on her hip munching a fistful of cookies, the slender and smartly dressed circus tour director, Claire Redding, kept a watchful eye on her other son, Cayton.

He neared the jumble of motor homes temporarily parked outside the Civic Center. Like any typical rambunctious 6-year-old boy, Cayton knew where his "house" was located and he was racing ahead of mom to get there first.

Meanwhile, inside the Civic Center's massive exhibit hall, two miniature show ponies clip-clopped in harmony around the ring in response to commands from two stately blondes who make up the performing mother-daughter duo of Heidi Herriott and 16-year-old daughter Cassidy.

Poised and well-spoken, the jeans-wearing duo could almost be mistaken for pageant contestants with sparkling eyes, warm smiles and easy demeanors.

Two moms, two sets of family dynamics, both professional career women juggling family life on the road as members of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

One woman performs and trains animals; the other coordinates publicity and logistics. One mom corrals squirmy toddlers, and the other braves the tender teenage years with a beautiful daughter.

A common denominator exists in both their lives: supportive husbands who also travel and work for the "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Both women frequently encounter questions about providing a "normal" life for the family, instead of one that picks up and moves weekly. Fortunately, the make-up and living situations of today's American family no longer reflect the stereotypical 1950s sitcom where Mom stayed home, busying herself with the kids around a quaint house while Dad left for work each morning.

"I am a third-generation circus animal trainer who grew up traveling like this with my parents. I love to perform and work with animals," Herriott said.

Like a lot of professional women her age, she gave up life on the road once her children became school-age. She spent the next 20 years involved with her children's activities and sports, shuffling them around a permanent home in Orlando.

But the pull of the circus still held a firm grip on her heart.

The planets aligned after our son went to college and Cassidy expressed an interest in joining me for this two-year commitment," she said.

After a family meeting and vote, Cassidy spent last summer training and toughening up the calluses on her hands to ride the elephant and perform tricks on the rope.

A certified teacher travels with the show, providing instruction for circus kids under the home-school curriculum. Daily lessons take place after circus chores are completed.

"I had no idea this would involve so much physical labor," Cassidy stressed, "but I enjoy doing it so much, and my friends think it's really cool."

Claire Redding and her husband, the band conductor, have been with the show for 10 years. They effortlessly seek a "normal" life for their two young boys despite traveling on the road for 43-45 weeks per year.

"We love traveling around the United States. On Monday through Wednesday we have our days off and explore the city. In each location, we set up a 'playground' for the kids outside the mobile home. They just have a different backyard each week."

Living out of a well-appointed, homey house-on-wheels comes with some disadvantages.

"When I was pregnant with Ashton, it was quite a challenge to coordinate prenatal visits with doctors in different cities," Redding said. "It took a lot of planning ahead."

Dressed in matching khaki pants and blue polos, the boys were excited for some "mom time" now that it was 2 p.m. and school was done for the day. Nothing out of the ordinary for this professional working mom.

But what happens after the circus contract finishes? Both moms hesitated to predict the future.

Redding smiled, adding that she loved knowing her children are always just a dressing room away. And Herriott supports Cassidy's dreams of attending college.

But for right now, the toddlers and the teen — and their families — are enjoying life on the road.