Ringmasters set the scene for the audience, capturing their attention and directing them to the most spectacular acts ever seen. Generally, we work alone. I never saw myself with a sidekick.
Ringmasters traditionally work alone. As individuals, we set the scene for the audience, capturing their attention and directing them to the most spectacular acts ever seen. The very nature of our vocation requires us to share ourselves with thousands, even tens of thousands in a single performance. Then, three years ago, I was informed that as the Ringmaster, I would be assigned a sidekick. I went numb because an entertainer’s ego is a complex mix of arrogance, fear, and confidence. This was the first time a Ringmaster had a sidekick and it was non-negotiable. As a professional entertainer, I’d just have to live with it but at that time, I wasn’t going to like it. All in all, the entertainer’s ego is a fragile thing and thus, threats to it, i.e. sidekicks, who themselves journey with their own ambitions, ought to be avoided at all cost.
So, there we were, one of the largest casts ever-assembled in our history, preparing to build the latest edition of The Greatest Show On Earth at our Winter Quarters outside of Tampa, Fla. and there he was, barely four-feet tall and unable to speak a word of English. My first thought? “Great, we’re recreating the circus themed version of Fantasy Island.” Remember that thing our parents told us about assuming? Read on.
A native of Sao Paolo, Brazil, Paulo dos Santos Oliveira was born into a world determined to presume his value to be as small as he. The youngest of four children; Paulo was the only male in a family where only he and his sister, Priscilla, are of the same stature. Few could foresee the giant ambitions that stirred within him.
It started with the rodeo. Rodeo culture is rather significant in certain parts of Brazil, and Paulo would find himself caught up in the wave of cowboy culture, much to his parents’ chagrin. Actually, his mother, a domestic and his father, a landscaper had no idea that their diminutive son would sneak out on the weekends to travel and even work at rodeo shows with his friends. He’d ride miniature bulls and clown. This went on for a number of months and despite the fact that he managed to bring home some extra and much-needed cash, the gig was up. However, as they say “when one door closes, another one opens.”
Enter Capoeira, a fantastically rhythmic and acrobatic martial art, made popular in Brazil. As if drawn to it, Paulo stumbled upon a class being given in his school’s gymnasium and was immediately hooked. His excitement even warranted the attention of theMestre. “So, you like Capoeira?” Asked the Mestre. The stunned Paulo could hardly compose himself to form an answer. But, he did and that answer would be a resounding, “yes.” He was invited to attend classes, but, found out rather quickly that he was not welcomed by many of the other students. He was ridiculed mercilessly and was openly mocked and discounted because of his size. The harassment wasn’t limited to just words either. This mostly occurred when the Mestre wasn’t present. One bully in particular was brazen enough to
suggest to the Mestre that Paulo did not belong.
The Mestre had a solution. He would train Paulo away from the class. Once a week, every Saturday, for an entire year. Paulo committed himself like he’d never committed himself to anything before. Never missing a session. Nothing mattered. Not the weather, not the bullies, not even the fear of his father’s fits of rage fueled by his life-long abuse of alcohol. Nothing was going to prohibit Paulo from awakening the giant within, even if he was a mere four-feet tall.
The time had come for the annual Batizado de Capoeira (the Baptism of Capoeira). This is one of the largest and most significant events in the progress of a Capoeirista. As the program neared its end, the Mestre, with his entire class
present, took to the floor. He’d offered cordial niceties and salutations to advancing students. Then he launched into his final presentation. He reminded his students about their doubt in his diminutive charge and disclosed that he, the Mestre, defied their cruel and shortsighted criticisms and trained the very person they had ridiculed and rejected. He told them of his dedication and that in mere moments they would all eat their words. Terrified, Paulo composed himself, took to the floor and proceeded to literally steal the show.
When he was done, the place erupted, the cheers were deafening, there wasn’t a dry eye in the building and like a scene right out of the Karate Kid, one by one, the very ones who’d vilified him, lined up to embrace him and offer him much-earned respect.
Paulo would continue his training for years to come. Advancing to the point where he himself would be qualified to teach. During his progress in Capoeira, he’d discover the wonderful world of live theater where he’d appear and tour with such productions as The Wizard of Oz, Lazy Town, and Pinocchio. His skills and theatrical presence would eventually capture the attention of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
Legend has it, that his audition was so flawless that he was offered a contract on the spot, no questions asked.
Since his arrival he has captivated audiences throughout the United States; in the process he’s gained his biggest fan next to his amazing family, me. And by the way, since he’s been here, he’s learned to speak both English and Spanish, in addition to his native language, Portuguese (I just speak English). I have no shame in confessing that I gladly ate my serving of crow and that fragile ego of mine? It’s still intact. It has been an honor to share the spotlight with him.
Performing alongside him these past three years have been the most satisfying of my career with The Greatest Show On Earth.His energy, professionalism, and sense of humor are infectious. And the humility, ease and sheer joy for which he approaches his work is inspiring.
Don’t take my word for it. It’s in the faces of everyone who see him perform. It shows up in the respect he commands when he shares his story at children’s shelters and afterschool programs with kids who’ve never even fathomed their own possibilities. Perhaps that is why that Dragon of ours is always beckoned by his charm. It makes perfect sense.
In a fascinating way, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baileypresents DRAGONS is a symbolic parallel to Paulo’s own life. While everyone cast doubt about the possibility of there being a Dragon, he sees otherwise and refuses to relent until we see it as well. While most in his life saw nothing more than a little person, Paulo’s own courage, strength, wisdom and heart allowed him to see so much more. I assure you when you see him, you’ll most certainly agree.
Johnathan Lee Iverson is the Ringmaster for 142nd Edition ofThe Greatest Show On Earth®, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents DRAGONS. You may join Mr. Iverson on Twitter and Instagram @bigtopvoice.