If you don't know that 2012 is the year of the dragon, then head to the circus. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus returns to Tampa next week with a new show celebrating the dragon, a mythical, magical beast waiting to come alive. Acts revolve around strength, courage, wisdom and heart — traits required to summon the dragon. Costumes, props and music focus on having the spirit of the dragon live in you. It's a little hokey, to be sure, but kids will soak it up. We won't ruin the ending, except to say it's pretty big. Here is a rundown of the show's highlights. As ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson likes to say: "Let the dragon games begin!''
• The Shaolin Warriors from China show super-human strength using Kung Fu moves dating to the fifth century. "Don't attempt this at home,'' the ringmaster advises, and it's not purely in jest. These guys twist rebar around their necks, bend metal by pushing it against their throats and jump through a skinny ring of fire and knives. Even blindfolded. The act is a little hard to watch, at times, which is probably the whole idea. Whether it's really "mind over body'' strength or some type of circus magic, it's hard to tell. But it looks real. As proof, the warriors have people in the ringside audience try to bend the rebar and metal. They can't.
• The Globe of Steel is back by popular demand and even more incredible. Eight motorcycle riders crisscross the 16-foot globe at high speeds, inches from one another. They say eight is a new record and, really, who wants to challenge it? This looks like a huge smashup waiting to happen. People love it.
• Riders of the Wind storm into the ring on galloping horses that, at times, seem more wild than tame. These equestrian acrobats do flips, handstands and make a five-person pyramid on two horses circling around the ring at full speed. A few riders fell during the dress rehearsal show, which actually added to the thrill and awe of it all. No, this isn't a trot through the countryside. Anything can happen.
• Appearing in the United States for the first time, Alexander Lacey of Great Britain proves it is possible to tame big cats, even belligerent ones. Lacey gets his lions and tigers to sit up on their hind legs, roll over in unison and dance in circles. All the snarling, swatting and roaring makes you wonder what kind of life insurance policy this guy has. If any. Anyone who has tried to get a house cat to do anything but sleep, eat and scratch your furniture can appreciate his skills.
• The Hair-Hanging Wonders of the West are just that: wonders. These two women ride out on elephants to hang, flip and spin in the air from their own ponytails. It looks painful, like at any time their long, dark locks will rip out, sending them on a fast train to the floor. We were told their hair is an ancient family secret, and no one is allowed in their dressing room prior to shows.
• The Flying Caceres fly through the air in their double-decker trapeze act. Look for the forward triple somersault and George Caceres' first attempt at a full-twisting double bar-to-bar somersault, which sounds as complicated as it is.
• Dogs, cats, donkeys and goats do all sorts of cute stuff in the animal menagerie act. Poodles jump rope, Jack Russell terriers do back flips and goats walk on a balance beam, eliciting laughs and cheers from the audience. And lest we forget the elephants, an enduring source of controversy among animal rights groups who say they don't belong in the circus. The pachyderms run around the floor connected tail to trunk, the baby one getting the most aaaaws. They spin on pedestals and sit on their tushes, then line up for their iconic finish: all of them in a row standing on two legs against each other's backs.
• Also worth mentioning are the pre-show activities. Guests can visit animals in the outdoor viewing area 90 minutes before each show or attend the pre-show on the circus floor. The hourlong pre-show offers a good chance to see performers up close and take photos. Clowns do mini routines, and an elephant paints a picture with its trunk. Kids can try on circus costumes, learn Kung Fu moves and dance with clowns. The circus, now in its 142nd edition, is about two hours and 15 minutes long, with a short intermission, so it's good idea to let the kids walk around a bit beforehand.