When Daniela Prieto was 18 years old, she told her mom she was running away to join the circus. Now, most of the time when a teenager says something like that, parents don’t take it seriously, but Prieto’s parents took her at her word.
The circus is in Prieto’s blood, after all. Her parents met while working in one, and her family members have been circus performers for three generations on her mom’s side and nine on her dad’s. So, she grew up watching her parents perform daring feats under the big top and longed to follow in their footsteps, soaring above crowds and performing graceful, seemingly death-defying tricks.
Prieto now appears in the Big Apple Circus — running now through the end of January at Lincoln Center in New York City — performing aerial cradle, trapeze, and double trapeze. And, in keeping with tradition, she does so with family at her side. Her partner, Alec Bryant, who performs high wire (he’s the base of the seven-person pyramid; no pressure), is also part of the Big Apple Circus, and the pair welcomed a son, MJ, last year. So while it’s common for parents from every walk of life to feel like family life is a juggling act, for Prieto and Bryant, family life is a circus, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Romper had a chance to speak with Prieto by Zoom to discuss what it was like growing up in such an unusual environment, performing after pregnancy, and raising her son in the family business.
Jamie Kenney: I was pretty astounded to see that you're a ninth generation performer on your dad’s side and third on your mom’s. But then I was reading the rest of the Big Apple Circus performer bios, and that’s pretty typical — sixth generation, seventh generation. It seems that it’s weirder not to come from a circus family. What do you think makes families continue that tradition?
Daniela Prieto: Maybe back generations ago it was more of a “we don't know anything else” situation, but now as time has gone by, people see their options and they try different things. But when you’re born in the circus and then you grow up in it and then you perform — I just feel I was born to do this. A lot of performers feel that way too. My mother tried the town life. She kind of retired after I was born, and we tried going to school and she got a normal job. But I would go back during the summers to my grandparents’ show and I was like, “This just feels right.” We’re just natural-born entertainers. When I turned 18, I was like, “I'm running away with the circus 100% now,” so I just left.
You talk about having kind of your summer life in the circus and then your normie life in town. What are your strongest memories of growing up that way?
My father's family has a small tent show that would travel around Texas and surrounding states. I remember them setting up and tearing down. I remember playing on all of the equipment. And now I wish I could go back just to relive that because it was fun not having to set up or do anything.
What does your lifestyle involve now that you're an adult? Are you traveling all year? Or are there specific seasons when you’re on the road?
It just depends on where you perform, what show or what act you do. Right now, the Big Apple Circus is here in New York — it's not really much traveling. But other shows you do travel. Some shows you do overnight traveling where you drive all night, you get there, you set up and then you perform the next day and then you do it all over again
You had a baby boy last year. Was that planned out because you weren’t performing and you had the freedom to pursue parenting or… ?
No, honestly, it was all just perfect timing. Alec was working in town and I was working on a show that closed down in the very beginning of March because of everything. On our drive home from Missouri, I was like, “I'm not feeling OK.” We stopped at a truck stop Walmart and I got a test and I was like, “Oh!” I had been doing double trapeze — an aerial duo act I wouldn't have felt comfortable continuing when pregnant, so it worked out perfectly.
I wondered about that. Because my first thought was “Oh, there's no way she could have done her job while pregnant.” And then I thought, “Women do amazing things, so maybe she did.” Did you train at all while you were pregnant?
I didn't train. You know your own body, you know your own limits. I did perform, but just not doing aerial. I did little things here and there, like dancing. I’d put on a costume until it was like, “Oh, you're definitely pregnant.” Also, I was tired, I was hot. I don't think I would've performed aerial, or at least not done some tricks, like hang by my neck or hang by my toes.
You talk about knowing your body and your limits. I wondered if you’ve found performing different since giving birth.
I've never felt stronger than now. Even before having MJ, I was pretty strong, but now I feel stronger. I don't know if it's a mom thing that’s given me more drive. Like “I'm going to do this, I'm going to work out, I'm going to set a goal and achieve it,” but I feel stronger, physically and mentally. I didn’t have anything going on until he was 6 months old — I was just a mom. It was hard when I first started training again. I couldn't even do one pull up, and I've never in my life not been able to do a pull up. I was trying with all my might. But then it was like, “I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it,” and I did. It's a different type of determination.
So what is your child care situation, particularly when there’s a show?
We have a day care here at the circus. And when we drop him off, I feel it's what every parent feels when they drop their kids off the first day. And they look at you, and it breaks your heart even though our dressing room is two doors down. We can pop in any time, but it still tugs at your heart a little bit, and when we're backstage warming up, we're like, “What do you think MJ is doing?” But there are three other kids besides MJ, so they all hang out.
And when you work on a show, everybody is family. Although I don't have my mom here and Alec doesn't have his parents here, we have people that we see every day and they love MJ as if he was blood. And I feel that's always been what I can remember — barbecues, hanging out, Christmas. All the kids get gifts from everyone. It's one giant family.
When the kids see their parents performing, are they dazzled, or is it “Meh, mom's on the trapeze again”?
Yeah. It's kind of just, “Eh, OK, any other day.” Or I'm like, “Hey, where's your dad?” “Oh, he's just practicing.” It's just normal.
I know from your bio that your parents did everything from trapeze to getting shot out of a cannon, and I've noticed that a lot of the performers in Big Apple do a lot of different acts. Like, you’re an aerialist who’s now training on the high wire. What’s the drive to keep diversifying your skills?
It depends. For me, I’ve never felt more graceful or more secure than when I’m in the air. I feel awkward on the floor. I don't have a ground act: I'm just an aerialist. Anything that's strong upper body, I feel secure, I can trust myself. As for high wire, my mom did it. I always loved this picture of her on the top of a seven-person pyramid in Colombia. It’s an old picture, and I thought, “I want to be her; I want to do that.” Now, I have the opportunity to learn with Nik Wallenda.
How’s it going?
It's a little different because it's not strength. I mean, it is a little bit of strength, but it's not upper body aerialist and stuff. It's more timing and technique and stuff like that.
Big Apple Circus is showing now at running in Lincoln Center through the end of January. Do you have a plan for your off-season?
Practice! Maybe take a week or two off, just relax, visit people, get things in order at the house, but I don't think I can do longer than that. We've been practicing at Nik’s house: There’s a giant wire in his backyard. He also has a facility where we can have our aerial riggings hung up and stuff. We practice in the morning before it gets too hot because we are in Florida. Then throughout the day, we can relax or do errands or do other things, and then one more practice in the early evening when the sun starts to go down.
What do you want your son to take from having this very unique childhood?
It's going to sound selfish, but I really hope he wants to be in the circus. I really hope he wants to carry on the tradition and the legacy. If he doesn't, that's fine, but we want to equip him to be able to do both. We're going to give him a good solid education, but then we're also going to give him a good solid knowledge of the circus. I hope when he is able to make the decision, that he realizes he can do both.
Tickets to the Big Apple Circus are available now through the end of January through its website, BigAppleCircus.com.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Photographer: Caroline Tompkins