Ivan Vargas has always known he wanted to go into the family business.
When he was 7 years old, his parents asked him if he would rather do something else or go to a different school, he told them no.
The past six generations of the Vargas family — five on his mother's side — have been circus performers, and he wanted to be one, too.
For the past four years, Vargas, 22, has been performing as a Nike-wearing, hip-hop dancing clown with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown Alley. Before that, he trained and performed as an acrobat for 12 years.
"I always want to entertain people," Vargas said. "I love making people laugh, and I love making people gasp at an amazing trick that I've just done. For as long as I can be, I want to be an entertainer."
Vargas took his first steps in the corridors of the moving circus train. He attended the circus school with the children of other performers before he was allowed to practice any of his acts as a kid. Four years ago, he met his wife, a fellow circus performer, while on a show tour.
"What isn't there to like?" he said about the circus.
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The Ringling Bros. circus continues its 2013 debut this weekend at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. For Vargas, who is from Sun City, it's a trip back home.
Each circus tour lasts for two years, he said. And the group, which is made up of more than 350 performers and crew members, gets a break every December.
But for the majority of the year, members spend their days traveling the continental United States. Sometimes, their contracts take them out of the country. Vargas speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.
"I just learned it from people around the circus," he said.
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While Vargas has always wanted to be a performer, he didn't always want to be clown.
He trained to be an acrobat, but always envied the way the circus' 25 clowns were able to interact with the audience.
But the Ringling Bros. clowns are an elite group. The circus holds auditions throughout the year, but few make the cut.
Vargas said he was chosen in part due to his ability to "fall convincingly," a skill he attributes to his acrobatic training, and one that is crucial to the clowns' slapstick acts.
"Clowning is not so easy as people think it is," he said. "Clowning is very difficult, and I would say dangerous at times. You need to train for a long time before you can start doing the silly stuff."
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When he isn't practicing or performing, Vargas said he spends his time taking photos. Maybe someday he'll try to make photography more than a hobby, but for now, he puts 100 percent of his focus into performing.
His mother, Lolis Vargas, 46, was herself a high-wire performer before she retired and became the circus' wardrobe director. She said she gave birth to Vargas while the circus was on tour in Madison, Wis.
She and her husband left it up to Vargas and his sister whether they wanted to live the circus life. She is still trying to persuade him to go to college, Lolis Vargas said, but it is a joy to watch him carry on in the family tradition.
"Once that performing bug gets in you, it's hard to get it out," she said.
Elizabeth Behrman can be reached at [email protected]