FLORENCE, S.C. – Circus life isn’t for everyone, but whether they join the big top in childhood or later in life, those who love it really love it.
Just ask Cathy Carden and David Shipman.
Carden, a seventh-generation animal trainer and performer, began performing as a ballerina on horseback in her parents’ act at the age of 5. By the time she was 7, she began working with her parents to care for animals, including her family’s three young elephants. At age 12, she was training elephants and liberty horses. Although training was her passion, Carden decided it was just as important to be skilled in other areas so she shifted her focus to performance, learning how to be an acrobat, aerialist, trampolinist, dancer and later a vocalist and announcer. She has been performing ever since.
Shipman’s journey to circus life was quite different. Shipman was working a regular 9 to 5 office job when he learned about ringmaster auditions through Facebook. He ended up completely missing the audition but determined not to let a golden opportunity pass him by, he called Ringling Bros. to see if he could still try out. That caught the attention of executives, and Shipman got the job.
Today, he and Carden share life under the big top with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Fully Charged Gold Edition. Though their duties and everyday lives are different, both say there is much to be learned from the past and the present.
Carden says circus life is really all she has ever known.
At one point, she thought about leaving and taking on a career in journalism. But after a stint in school, she decided she’d stick with what she knew.
“I had a great childhood. It was a lot of fun,” Carden said in a recent phone interview with the Morning News.
“Being in a circus family means being together 24-7. Everybody’s together all the time,” she said. “I was born into this. You don’t think of this as a job, and it’s really not a job. It’s just your life.”
After performing with her family’s circus, Hanneford Family Circus, for many years, Carden was invited in 1998 to be a featured animal act as part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. There, she presented her liberty horses and was the understudy to ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson.
It was during winter quarters for that show that she first met her now-husband Brett, who also grew up with his family’s circus, the George Carden Circus.
“I was actually working with my husband’s brother, and my husband came to visit. I remember thinking, ‘Why didn’t I get paired up to work with the good looking one?’” Carden said, chuckling. “But we didn’t start dating until 2001 after his dad hired me to be a part of their circus. We were married about a year later and have been together ever since. Circus people usually stick together because our lives are so strange to others. ‘Normal people’ just don’t understand this lifestyle.”
The lifestyle is different than most are used to. Carden and her husband now have two young sons, George and Cash, who are on the road with them about 44 weeks a year. And when they’re not busy taking care of their children, they’re busy taking care of their other “babies” – the animals, which include three elephants.
And as with any animal or pet, that requires a great deal of time. There’s training, grooming and the day-to-day duties such as feeding.
“Elephants really are so personable. You get to have a really close relationship with them,” Carden said.
“Yes, they’re 8,000 pounds, but their personality traits are very similar to dogs,” she said. “They look for and love your approval, and they’re very affectionate and very loyal. A tail wag for a dog is the equivalent to an ear flap for an elephant. I’ve grown up with them since we were both babies, and they’re no different than a family dog. They like to stay with the same person and they get very attached. They’re part of our family.”
Also now part of Carden’s extended circus family is Shipman, who serves as ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Fully Charged Gold Edition.
Originally from Pensacola, Fla., Shipman’s love for the circus began at an early age – 2 ½ to be exact.
“I know it sounds crazy because I was so young, but I remember it all,” Shipman said in a phone interview with the Morning News. “I even still have the souvenir that was bought for me. I’ve kept it all these years.”
Shipman immersed himself in the performing arts during his school years and was drawn to the stage once again after listening to “The Phantom of the Opera” CD from start to finish with his mother. By the next day, he’d listened to it three times and had the show memorized.
“It was like nothing I’d ever heard before,” he said.
Shipman attended a performing arts-focused magnet school, where his first solo was at age 7. He continued to grow as a member of the Pensacola Children’s Chorus, where he performed in front of thousands. His passion for production grew and as a teen, he was always involved in theater, adding about 20 titles to his credit.
“I basically spent most of my life honing my performance skills,” he said.
Still, after college, Shipman put performance on the back-burner. After all, it was just a hobby and he felt the pressure to get “a real job.” He spent a few years behind a desk, surviving but not satisfied.
“I made a resolution to myself at the beginning of the year that I would put myself out there and take more chances. I’ve always known that I love to perform, but I’m older now, and I was worried about rejection. Really, I was scared.”
Shipman decided to get involved in the community theater circuit in Orlando, Fla., and within three months, he’d transitioned from a desk job doing local theater at night to a full-time performer with parts in six professional shows.
Then came that Facebook ad for a job with the Greatest Show on Earth – that audition he unfortunately missed.
“I missed the audition by a week, but I decided I had to take a chance, going on the whim that they might still be looking for someone. I went ahead and sent my information in and called them,” Shipman said.
Shipman’s whim grabbed the attention of talent scouts, and they called him in to audition for ringmaster.
“The audition was intense, but it was great,” Shipman said. “They gave me readings of speeches and put me to the test. I had to sing a little bit and dance. Dance was the most intense for me, because I’m a mover but not a dancer. They told me to freestyle like Usher, and I was like, ‘Who me?’”
Despite his doubts, Shipman’s moves impressed and he won his dream job. He said every day is a new experience and he couldn’t be happier with his decision to run away with the circus.
“To be able to see the reactions on the faces of the children … it’s just amazing,” Shipman said. “When you’re at the circus, no matter who you are, you’re immediately transported back to being a 5-year-old kid, and that’s so much fun to be a part of. This job is a mixture of everything I love.”