Sofia Zsilak Petrov | Baraboo, WI
In 1963, both my grandmas actually worked together in Budapest. My maternal grandfather came to the U.S. to work on the Ringling Brothers tour in 1964. The Ringling Brothers Circus was founded in Baraboo in 1884 and by the time my grandfather joined the tour it was the most famous circus in the world. He met my grandmother on the 1968-69 tour and they got married in 1970. My parents also worked for the Ringling Brothers circus. And now for the past three summers my parents, my brother and I live in Baraboo and work at Circus World as a family.
I am a normal girl, but growing up in the circus I had a very unique lifestyle. I grew up surrounded by talented people and performers from all over the world. We were in the U.S., but sometimes it didn’t even feel like it because the people in the circus were from everywhere.
My brother and I both grew up on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. My mom performed as a production girl up until she was 5 months pregnant with me, which means she rode the elephant, danced and performed in a brief aerial display. My father was very busy—he was around the animals a lot and did daredevil acts.
I remember being mesmerized by my mom when I was a kid. She did lyra one year, which looks like a steel hula hoop that is suspended from the ceiling and she used it to perform aerial acrobatics. She had these big hoops for the juggling act that she’d roll on her back. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the bed and putting the hoop on, getting inside of it and thinking I was on the lyra. There was no pressure for me to get into circus arts, but I was drawn to it. I started juggling when I was six years old. At six, a child’s hand and eye coordination is fully developed, so if you start juggling right then and there, your juggling just improves. My mom and my grandfather introduced it to my brother and I more as a game and not a pressure.
Home was the trailer. That is where we lived, that is where we slept. The trailer got pulled by a truck from city to city. Some performers lived on the Ringling train—including a lot of my friends. My best friend’s dad was the Ringling Brother’s Circus tiger trainer, so we grew up together basically. We had a close-knit family community where you always knew somebody somewhere. We’d say, ‘Come over to my trailer. Let’s play or let’s have a sleepover.’ Those were all normal things for us, same as kids who did not grow up in a circus. But it was just a little bit different for us.
I’ve never been to public school in my entire life, I’ve only ever been homeschooled. Ringling did have a full-time nursery. I did have a schoolroom. I did have teachers. We went on field trips, we did projects. We had the things you have in a regular school, lunch break and recess. When I was in sixth grade, I took it upon myself to finish the rest of middle school with Calvert Homeschooling. Once I hit high school, I started online school with American School and I will be graduating next year.
Being a circus perfomer is not a normal life, but we do normal things. We have to deal with normal world issues, but we also get to perform and do what we love. People come to the circus, enjoy what they’re seeing and forget about their issues for a while.
Movies portray the circus towards their storyline and sometimes it isn’t factually correct. Unfortunately those ideas bleed into people’s perception of circus, that performers aren’t taking life seriously or this is a phase. But the circus arts is a profession that requires a lot of skill. People who do stay in the circus get to do what we love, helping it grow and trying to maintain the culture to keep its history alive.
It was at the West Towne Mall in Madison and that was also the first time we visited Circus World in Baraboo. We got our first contract at Circus World back in 2021, right after the pandemic and this is our third summer in Wisconsin.
I’ve always heard of Circus World. Even growing up, I knew it was here in Baraboo. I have had a lot of friends who came to work here.
We work every single day. This year we started up on May 19th and we ran all the way to August 27th. I love that we’re able to stay in one spot. As much as I love traveling, it is very nice to be able to become a part of a community where you go to the coffee shop and people recognize you. The people within the community have become my neighbors. So it’s probably one of my favorite things to be able to have somewhere where you can say, ‘this feels like home now.’ I have three favorite cafes in Baraboo—I love Bella Vita, Coffee Bean, and Nautical Coffee. And I love Las Milpas and Driftless Glen.
I usually wake up around seven, and after breakfast I go over to the barn with my parents to take care of the animals. This consists of grooming, cleaning stalls, feeding, exercising and preparing their food for the night time. Sometimes we practice our acts in the morning, sometimes we don’t. It really depends on if we want to try new ideas or improve on some things.
Then around 10:00 am, I start getting ready for our first show at 11, getting my makeup on, doing my hair. When I was little I would always sit and watch my mom put her makeup on and prepare for her show. I was just mesmerized at how fast and easily she got it all done. In the tent shows I only perform my aerial orb act, which is made up of three lyras welded together. At 1:30 I perform outside on the trapeze portion of the Motorcycle High Wire, which is a thrill act that I do with my dad. And then at 2:30 we have another tent show, and I repeat the orb act. My hair accessories vary depending on which act I am performing. In the opening production I have a flower in my hair, for the aerial act I have a rhinestone headband, and for the motorcycle high-wire I wear my hair up in a braided bun.
It sounds like it’s a lot, but after the second week, you fall into the groove of it. And being able to finish up at 4:00 is every circus performers dream. You can go anywhere you want, do anything you want, and you still have work. So I really do enjoy it, and I am very grateful for it because not every contract allows you the time to practice or do a hobby. So I am very appreciative of the lifestyle that this does offer. Sometimes my mom, brother and I will practice after the show. We practice our juggling, or I practice a new aerial trick. On other days, we go out to the Dells. Sometimes we go to Devil’s Lake. We love Devil’s Lake, it’s one of my favorite places to be.
I always want to bring something different to the audience, something they won’t see almost anywhere else. In today’s world it is easy for people to see impressive things on their phones so we want to give them a reason to come to the circus and see something different—something amazing.
I love to improve and I love that I’m able to do it here at Circus World and within this community. People that come to watch the show, they have seen me grow, they have seen me develop. It’s definitely something you wouldn’t experience on just any circus contract or show. I so love being here, and I love the Baraboo community very much.
I would really love to become a part of this community and see where it takes me. I really want to help the circus heritage and tradition here grow even more
It’s a lot of shaking! That motorcycle shakes a lot! Aerial is one thing, you have a prop and it spins, but this is really unique because the prop itself is shaking! It looks intimidating and it seems scary, but when you know the science of it, you can feel how to do the trick. In this act, you can never be too comfortable though because things can change instantly. This is the type of act that always keeps the performers and the audience on the edge of their seats.
My dad began performing this act years ago, I remember watching him do this act in Ringling. For a while, he only had one girl on the trapeze, then as the years went on, they wanted new things so he also had two girls on the trapeze. My father bought the prop off of Ringling Brothers when they closed in 2017 and I began performing this act.
When the opportunity came up for me to start practicing it was something I was excited to try out along side my dad. At that point I had already been practicing in solo aerial acts so doing an act that was both aerial and thrill was intriguing. This act takes many years of practice. That is not something you can learn overnight. There’s a build up. I started practicing motorcycle highwire around age 12 or 13 and by that point I had already been practicing aerial.
To learn the motorcycle high wire act, I began by literally just sitting on the trapeze. Up and down, up and down. Practice, practice, practice. You have to get used to sitting. You need to get used to feeling both the motion and the brake. And then adding the speed. I had to really understand when my dad is going to pick up speed or when he’s going to drop down to a lower speed. It’s such a drastic movement so you always have to be alert, prepared for anything.
The bike handlebars are welded in and my dad does a handstand on them. When he goes up into a handstand, I go down into a toe hang. Me and him have to be in one center of gravity in order for the motorcycle to not go left or right. And we also have to keep contact and connection so he knows I’m ready or he knows I’m done. We always have to have communication going on in order for the act to flow and for, of course, the safety of both of us. These are all the things you can not just learn overnight.
We also do a full 360 turn flip on the wire. As my dad is driving up sitting on the bike, I am on the trapeze standing. My dad then tilts the bike to the right side with his whole body setting off the motion. In the meantime, it is very important for me to be standing strong and holding myself very tight.
One of the most important parts of this act is the audience. If you have a good audience, it brings out all the emotions. You feel the adrenaline, you feel your heart when people are screaming. That’s what you want. That’s why you’re doing this. You want to feel that emotion.
My mom is nervous with me performing these acts, but she fully supports me in my crazy ideas, and she’s always helping me and giving me advice on what would look better. She helped a lot with the choreography and presentation of my aerial acts. Sometimes she gets frustrated with me because she’s like, ‘Why do you need to do this crazy thing?’ But she can tell that I love what I do, and she gives me her full support. My dad also knows that I like striving for something new, something different, something unique, and he’s always there to help me with my plans and ideas.
When I was younger and first showed interest in continuing my circus life, my mom said, ‘It’s going to be stressful.’ And I said, ‘I know, but I am ready for it. I want to be able to say I was a part of that.’ Even if I weren’t to become amazingly great, I just want people to recognize me for the work I do. To say, ‘She actually did that very nice,’ or, ‘I remember that act.’ I want people to be able to reflect back on something they’ve seen me perform or practice and say ‘She was doing it because she loved it, because she put the passion into it.
Sofia’s story was produced by Rebecca Lemar.