Ivan Vargas says he was “born on Ringling Bros”—almost as if it was another world. Vargas has never known anything else.
For the last two centuries all his family has done is performed in the circus. The legend is, his great, great, great, great-grandfather had a trained cow act in Mexico City. He was scouted by the circus going through town, and the rest is Vargas family history.
From animal trainers and handlers, to acrobats, aerialists, and clowns, Ivan says the film “Like Water for Elephants” rings true for him.
“The cast, crew, and animals still travel on trains—11 months out of the year and perform 8-13 shows per week—it is very much like living on another planet," he said.
A clown is always an extension of yourself. I love hip-hop music and break dancing, so I mix acrobatics with dance. I’m not a very funny person, so I take the hits and do a lot of falling down.
The mile-long trains are privately owned by Ringling Bros. "We still set up tents and the clowns still use steamer trunks for all our belongings,” Vargas says.
There are three different kinds of clowns.
Auguste: which means “foolish” in German, is the buffoon. He does pratfalls and takes hits.
White Face: The traditional clown. He’s the aristocrat, the one in charge, and the straight man in the act.
Character: Originally the Tramp or Hobo, but today can be any character—firefighter, policeman, or businessman.
Ivan aka “Von the Hip-Hop” clown, is a mix of Auguste and Character.
“A clown is always an extension of yourself. I love hip-hop music and break dancing, so I mix acrobatics with dance. I’m not a very funny person, so I take the hits and do a lot of falling down,” Vargas says.
Vargas started performing at age 13. By 16, he was essentially an independent adult performer. He says the circus makes children grow up faster than in the real world. You’re expected to be responsible and handle yourself; go to school, get into your costume on time and do your act or gag. If circus kids miss a class, they are punished by not being allowed to perform. Vargas says for him that was huge motivation.
He says that with over 142 performers in the show (he’s currently working on Dragons) there are only 12 clowns, and only 25 Ringling Bros. clowns worldwide. It’s more difficult to become a clown (statistically) than to be in the NFL.
Today, over 40 percent of the Ringling Bros. performers are Latino—one of the highest numbers in their history. Past years have seen larger groups from China or Russia.
Today, there’s the Torres Family; a motorcycle act. This year, they break all records with eight cycles in a globe of steel, going around at 65 mph, inches away from one another. The Flying Caceres are from 4 different South American countries. And currently there are two Mexican clowns and one Peruvian.
Like most cultures, clowns have their own superstitions and secret circus rituals. Vargas revealed one that most audience members would never know. “In the theater you say to a performer ‘break a leg’ before he goes on stage. In the circus we never say that. We say ‘bump a nose’. So, next time you wish us good luck before a show, say ‘bump a nose’,” Vargas says.
As the sixth generation circus performer in his family and now married to a Ukrainian aerialist named Oksana Klymenko, Vargas’ children may very well be the seventh.
“When I have children, it would be their choice to perform or not,” he said. “But it’s a world I feel most comfortable in and believe I will always belong to.”