In 2016, siblings Dustin Cottrell and Corey Cheval combined their passions of ragtime and the circus arts to create Dusty’s Ragtime Circus.
“The big circuses have gone away,” Cottrell said, “so certain smaller circuses have stepped into the gap.”
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, known as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” was shut down in 2017 after animal rights organizations began to put pressure on the circus for its use of animals in the show. While the popular circus is planning on a comeback this year, it was not able to show off any performances for many years.
Even though bigger circuses that relied on animals have struggled in the past years, the circus arts have not. Smaller circuses have continued to teach and perform across Florida.
In Tallahassee, Florida State University shows off its Flying High Circus, where university students are given the opportunity to participate in various performances.
Further south, Circus Sarasota finished its performances for its 25th anniversary on March 5.
In Gainesville, Dusty’s Ragtime Circus shows performances in silks, acrobatics, juggling, dance, theater and more, all while a live band plays ragtime versions of popular music.
The circus also features Cottrell and Cheval as the two main characters – two siblings who fight over how to properly run a circus. The narrative, characters and music are the main themes of the show, Cottrell, 41, said.
Since its creation, Dusty’s Ragtime Circus has performed in multiple states across the southeast United States, including Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and more.
Yet, the circus always makes sure to perform at least one show in Gainesville every year, Cottrell said.
“Gainesville is the best place for us to do it,” Cottrell said. “We have the Gainesville Circus Center as a great base to perform it at.”
The Gainesville Circus Center is a nonprofit that hosts classes for adults and children who are inte
rested in circus arts. Cheval is the founder and director of the center, and many of the performers in Dusty’s Ragtime Circus teach classes there.
Both the center and Dusty’s Ragtime Circus offer Gainesville residents a unique opportunity to pursue their passion in the circus arts.
Cottrell said the Gainesville Circus Center is one of the only circus centers in northern Florida, with most other centers being in bigger cities. Still, interest in circus arts is not fading.
“Circus arts have really been on a huge upward arc in the past 10 to15 years,” Cottrell said. “It’s the new thing.”
Circus arts provide children with a unique, enriching activity that can engage anyone who is artistic, musical or athletic, Cottrell said. Additionally, the variety of different focuses and skills can strongly interest teenagers and adults.
Isabel Brazzel, 23, grew up in Gainesville. She started dancing at 7 years old, but only started participating in circus arts in recent years.
Brazzel began taking classes at the Gainesville Circus Center for fun, and she quickly fell in love. She started working at the center for its summer camp and then advanced to become the youth program coordinator and office administrator.
“It’s been one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” Brazzel said.
Brazzel had performed in past productions put on by the Gainesville Circus Center and was hired for the first time this year to work as a ground act for Dusty’s Ragtime Circus.
Brazzel said she is extremely passionate about promoting the circus arts and these performances, as it is an activity that builds confidence, promotes creativity and body positivity, and fosters many positive effects for mental health.
“To be able to participate in this show that has such a unique and wide variety of acts, really stimulates me creatively and makes me so excited to be performing with all these other fabulously talented creators,” Brazzel said.
Brazzel performed in multiple acts in Dusty’s Ragtime Circus, including a stilting duet, an acrobatic dance solo and an acro-dance duet with fellow performer and instructor, Liz Bouton.
Bouton, 31, was also raised in Gainesville and used to dance at the same dance studio as Brazzel when they were younger. Being able to dance together again in this show and at the Gainesville Circus Center was serendipitous, Brazzel said.
Bouton has now performed with the circus for four years as an aerialist and dancer.
Bouton mentioned Dusty’s Ragtime Circus is a lot different from other shows at the center due to the traveling aspect and the fact the show is all done live.
“I do enjoy performing to live music because it does vary sometimes, and it kind of keeps you on your toes, makes you adaptive, and it’s a lot more interactive with the audience that way,” Bouton said.
The show can take months to rehearse all the different performances and acts due to the amount of detail put into it.
Rainy Barton, 29, has worked with Dusty’s Ragtime Circus for around three years, and while she was not supposed to perform this year, she helped fill in as a singer for one of the performances.
Barton has been doing aerial arts for over six years. While she did not have any performing experiences before she joined the Gainesville Circus Center, she wanted to try the circus arts because she was looking for an exciting way to exercise that was less intimidating than regular gyms.
The opportunity to participate in circus arts is especially important to have in all areas because it offers an alternative option to the traditional gym, Barton said.
“The [circus community] itself has been a very safe place for LGBTQ members and anybody of any weight, any race, any ethnicity, background; it’s just been a very safe space for all those people,” Barton said. “I think that it itself is important because a lot of times you can go to gyms or other places, [and] you look a certain way, and it’s just not as inviting.”
Barton added that Gainesville is a great place for the circus to thrive, as it is full of people from all over who strongly enjoy and support the arts.
“Gainesville is just like a hodgepodge of talents and hidden gems, so I think it fits in perfectly,” Barton said.