The common perception of circus performers is that the Big Top is in their blood, that they're all part of a long family tradition dating back four or five generations. But they don't all fit that bill.
Take Andre McClain, the self-proclaimed "America's Favorite Cowboy" who runs a live exotic animal act as part of the 140th version of "The Greatest Show on Earth," Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Barnum’s FUNundrum!, which runs from Friday, Jan. 7 through Jan. 17 at downtown Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena. He's the first in his family to run away and join the circus.
"Before I came to Ringling, I had never seen a circus," says McClain, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and whose father founded the Bill Pickett Rodeo in 1984, which was America’s first all-black touring rodeo. "So I didn't know what to expect, but these guys risk their lives every day. And this year - I don't care what other show of Ringling you've ever seen, but it's bigger and better than any show we've put together."
Highlights of FUNundrum - which features 130 performers from six continents - include the Flying Caceres, who will complete the elusive quadruple somersault on the flying trapeze, a feat that hasn’t been mastered in more than three decades; the Puyang troupe from China bouncing and flipping on a two-tiered trampoline; and the seemingly impossible contortions of the body benders who fit three humans in a cube the size of a milk crate.
That's not all, says McClain, with no small amount of wonder in his voice.
"We've got a young lady who wears four-inch pumps - four-inch pumps - and balances her husband on her shoulders," he says. "It's unbelievable, the strength. And we've got a woman who hangs by her hair, we've got a strongman who lifts 1,200 pounds over his head, and we've got an awesome high-wire act including motorcycles. This show is one big party. We plan on coming to Miami and shuttin' it down!"
For an even more complete circus experience, get to the AAA early - especially if you have kids.
"I'm the host of the All-Access Pre-Show, which is one hour before showtime," McClain says."The audience can come down on the arena floor, try on costumes, get autographs and be a part of this awesome show. We've got dancers, clowns and an elephant that paints paintings. For me, the pre-show is amazing because I have a chance to be up-close to the kids, making dreams come true, and watching the reactions on their faces."
McClain - whose animal act includes llamas, donkeys, goats, horses and even a watusi - is the real deal as far as cowboys go. He even rode his horse to high school.
"At first, people found it very strange," he says. "I guess I would have found it strange, too, if I was on the other end of the stick, because these guys were driving trucks and fancy cars to school, and here I come riding up on a horse. So it was hard at first, but people got used to it. I used to tie him up on the soccer field."
McClain's first meeting with Ringling Bros. took a bizarre but fortuitous turn.
"I got an offer to bring my horses down and show what I did in my cowboy act," he says. "So I drove my truck and trailer down to Austin, Texas, but when I made it to Oklahoma, my truck broke down, and I had to leave my horses in Oklahoma City, rent a car and rush down to Austin because I was already really late.
“I went down there with no horses. I didn't try to explain. I just took a bulltub - the pedestal that elephants stand on - and I stood up on it and I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I am Andre McClain and this is my invisible horse, Jonah!" And they burst out laughing, and I sang the National Anthem and did rope tricks and whipping target acts, and immediately afterward, they said, "Listen, if you want this position, you got it." And without a horse! How can you turn that down?"