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5 things to watch at this year's Ringling circus: elephants, costumes, performers and more

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is in town, with a free parade of animals marching through Tampa on Tuesday, and eight performances at the Amalie Arena Wednesday through Sunday. $16-$70 at ringling.com. Before you head to the show, here are some things to know.

The elephants

It's one of the last years to see the elephants in action. In March 2015, the producer of the circus announced that after 145 years of featuring elephants in acts, the 13 Asian elephants still traveling with the Ringling circus would be moved to the company's conservation center in Polk County by 2018.

Years of public outcry from animal rights activists, coupled with municipal laws that eliminated some tools handlers used to train elephants led to the announcement. Though the decision to retire the elephants was difficult, Kenneth Feld, the CEO of Ellenton-based Feld Entertainment, which has owned the circus since 1967, told the New York Times that the nature of the circus is that it changes — if for no other reason than longevity.

''There's no other entertainment that's been around for this long that you could name," Feld said. "We're older than baseball. We're older than Coca-Cola.''

The elephants will get the spotlight in the show at Amalie Arena this week, "as each trainer shows off individual elephants' natural skills and abilities," according to a news release. The circus producers say they will continue to showcase horses, dogs, tigers and other animals in performances.

Go early

Arrive 90 minutes prior to show time for the Animal Open House, free to ticket holders. You can walk around, speak to trainers and see where the animals live while the show is in Tampa. A pre-show starts an hour before the circus. Come down to the arena floor and meet the performers, try on costumes, get a clown nose, autographs and photos. See elephants paint (and enter to win one of the paintings), watch animals do tricks and join in a dance party with clowns.

The costumes

The circus headquarters in Ellenton has one whole warehouse dedicated to row after row of glittering costumes. And that's just what's in storage. The tour features more than 400 costumes and more than 1,000 costume pieces. Some fun costume facts passed along by Dawna Oak, director of costumes for Ringling:

•This year's circus has almost 15,000 individually hand-placed, heat-set rhinestones. "Probably more," Oak said. "We do not 'mass manufacture' our costumes."

• The circus pulls in the work of 50 people all over the country to create costumes, hats, shoes and accessories.

• The ringmaster boots are custom made in New York.

• Each costume is made by hand for the specific performer who wears it.

The ringmaster

Johnathan Lee Iverson, who turns 40 this year, is the first African-American ringmaster in more than 140 years of the circus. He was only 22 years old in 1999 when he won the position. A former Broadway performer and opera singer, his presence has been credited with setting box office records. Ebony magazine said of him: "The instant he appears out of the darkness and into the spotlight… the audience is rapt." Even jaded New Yorkers like syndicated columnist Liz Smith gushed that Iverson, was "commanding enough to be noticed in the melee, and he can sing." He was recognized as one of Barbara Walters' 10 Most Fascinating People of 1999.

The Legend Seeker

The script for the Legends show casts Paulo dos Santos of Brazil, who stands 3 feet, 4 inches tall and serves as a sidekick to ringmaster Iverson. Santos is pretty legendary himself for his aerial acrobatics. He's a master of the Brazilian art of capoeira, which combines dance and martial arts. Santos and Iverson often stop at schools on tour to talk about bullying and how mastering their craft became their escape. Santos gets the last laugh by performing in everything from comic skits involving a runaway hot air balloon to pole climbing feats with Chinese acrobats.

Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn on Twitter.

5 things to watch at this year's Ringling circus: elephants, costumes, performers and more 01/05/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2016 11:32am]
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