Equine Ballerina Comes Home To Florida With Cavalia Show In Tampa

Growing up in Sarasota, Sylvia Zerbini didn't have to run away to join the circus: She was born into it, much the same way she was born to lead a herd of free-roaming horses onto the world stage of the equestrian extravaganza known as Cavalia.

"I'm from nine generations of a circus family," she says. "Horses have always been part of my life."

So have the warm Florida sun and the agreeable climate of a community where the daughter of a Parisian trapeze artist and an Algerian-born lion trainer could blend in with the many cultures and nationalities of this Mecca for the performing arts.

Here, in the Tampa Bay region, where generations of touring performers have wintered and raised families, the seeds of diversity were planted, nurtured and eventually rooted among the many world-class dreamers who've come to seek their fortune.

In a place where the name Ringling is affixed to a major boulevard, a mansion and a museum, the influence of the circus community in Sarasota is unmistakable.

But it's not all clowns and high-wire acts. And it's not just Sarasota.

From Venice to Tampa, artists, musicians, dancers, athletes and farm workers have made their international mark on Florida's west coast.

"When I came home to Florida, I always felt so comfortable," says Zerbini. "I would go to Pennsylvania or Kansas and I would see that we had an accent that nobody else does."

Florida Paradise For People Who Love Horses

The globe-trotting horse trainer and trapeze artist has spent most of her life on the road. Sylvia Zerbini has toured the great cities of Europe and spent a good deal of time in Canada. She could choose to live anywhere on the planet. She chooses to live in Florida and settled 12 years ago on an 11-acre farm in Ocala, an international destination for equine enthusiasts of all disciplines.

It is another unexpected melting pot where race horses are bred, show horses are trained and fabulous European-style estates reside next to modest cottages that once served as caretakers' quarters for sprawling thoroughbred farms that have been sold and subdivided to accommodate Ocala's growth in recent years.
"The weather feels like when I was a child growing up and the people are really nice," Zerbini says. "And everywhere I look, there's horses. I don't think I would trade it for anywhere."

Each week, after Sunday's performance, Zerbini makes the 90-minute drive to visit her mother and the four performing horses she has retired to her farm.

On Tuesday, she's back in the giant 10-story White Big Top at the Florida State Fairgrounds, putting five stallions and four geldings through their paces for an audience of 2,000.

There is Alydar, Beijo, Gamlett, Gazi, Nezma, Sarab and Tonner -- gray Arabians she sends onto the sandy stage one-by-one. Shagal, her small but mighty alpha stallion takes charge of the little herd. But it is Riccardo, the Andalusian Arabian cross -- with his flowing black mane and tail and regal attitude -- who steals the show. Ricco reeks of star power.

"And he knows it," says Zerbini.

Breath-Taking Performances

More than 60 drop-dead gorgeous horses take the stage during the extravagant production, which also features stunning visual effects, acrobats, musicians and talented equestrians hand-picked from around the world.

The riders perform extraordinary feats on horseback that most people couldn't begin to achieve on the ground: Picture a gymnastic balance beam maneuver while standing on the hindquarters of a galloping horse.

The audience erupts in exuberant applause.

And yet it is the lithe and lean Zerbini, standing among the swirling herd of Arabians that she commands with a word, a nod, the flick of her hand, who inspires stunned awe. It is a mystical bond between woman and horse that casts a spell upon the enthralled spectators.

Cavalia has found a passionate following in Tampa. Ticket sales are brisk and the show so far has been extended through mid-April, four weeks past its scheduled run.

Zerbini, 41, joined Cavalia in 2008, but she has been honing her skills for decades, training her first Arabian at 15 and performing a year later.

She had been combining the  "liberty" work of free-roaming horses with her trapeze act since 1997 when she saw her first Cavalia performance in 2004.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, that's exactly what I do.' "

Four years later, she joined the Cavalia troupe.

Grandmother To Mother To Daughter

About that time, Zerbini also was inducted into the Circus Ring of Fame, the equivalent of receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Her plaque, one of only100 cemented on Sarasota's St. Armand's Circle, places her in the company of five Ringling brothers and circus legends like Karl Wallenda, patriarch of the famous Flying Wallendas high-wire act.

"I keep thinking they made a mistake," she told a reporter the day she received the Ring of Fame medal and watched as her plaque was unveiled.

Zerbini hung up her trapeze just before joining Cavalia so she could concentrate on working with her horses.

"I still play around and try to keep in shape," she says.

Meanwhile, her 17-year-old daughter, Ambra, is embracing the family business.

Ambra shares her mother's love of horses as well as her gift for training them.

"She has a knack for it," Zerbini says. She's also training as an acrobat and is following in her mother's and grandmother's footsteps, up the wire and onto the trapeze.

Cavalia's extended stay in Tampa will give Zerbini more time to enjoy the company and comforts of her Ocala home, if only for a couple of days a week. There is never enough of it, she says.

"But it's always a good feeling to come home."

Next stop: Charlotte.

Jan Hollingsworth is a freelance writer working from her Valrico home, an historical Victorian parsonage built in the mid-1880s for a Methodist circuit rider. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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