When a 31-foot-high trapeze rig appeared in Lincoln Park this July, it drew a lot of curious stares from the joggers, sunbathers, and golfers who congregate near Recreation Drive. For circus artists Julio and Gloria Gaona, however, the trapeze–along with a safety net, practice bar, and trampoline–was as natural for the setting as a Weber grill. “I grew up around this,” said Julio. “To me it’s as normal as walking.”

A seventh-generation circus performer, Julio was born into the Flying Gaona Family, a well-known Mexican family of trapeze artists, in 1968. He began performing with the California-based Circus Gatti at the age of three, doing tricks on the trampoline. “My father told me I could stay home and do my homework or take correspondence courses and come on the road with them,” says Julio. “I chose to go on the road. . . . I wanted to do what my uncles and father did.” By age seven he was performing on the trapeze for Circus World Orlando along with his father, a brother, and a sister. He went on to become a feature of the act and–at ten–one of the youngest fliers ever to complete a triple somersault, a feat he demonstrated a year later in an appearance on the TV show That’s Incredible!

Gloria was also born into a circus family, the Albarracins, and toured Europe, Asia, and the United States as a child, performing balancing acts with her brother and sister. The Gaona and Albarracin families often appeared in the same shows, and both wintered in Sarasota, Florida–home base for thousands of active and retired circus artists. Julio and Gloria met when he was 7 and she was 11. They began dating as teenagers and were married six years ago, shortly after Gloria joined the Gaonas’ act. When the Museum of Science and Industry staged the multimedia exhibit “Under the Big Top” in the summer of 2001, Julio and Gloria were among the veteran performers enlisted to teach classes. “People think it takes a lot of upper-body strength to do the trapeze, but it’s all timing,” says Julio. “It’s just like riding on a swing; you can gain momentum or kill it depending on when you kick.”

At the end of the exhibit’s five-month run, the couple planned to return to Sarasota, but a group of their students prevailed upon them to stay in Chicago and open a school. He and Gloria hadn’t planned to get into teaching, but, taken with Chicago, they opened Flying Gaonas Gym in November 2001, offering beginning through advanced classes in flying, double, and swinging trapeze, as well as trampoline, hand and head balancing, and other skills. Julio’s brother and uncles have opened circus arts schools in Boston, Los Angeles, and Venice, Florida.

Julio sees some irony in the current popularity of such classes (there are at least three other schools currently operating in Chicago): while it’s easier than ever for a novice to learn tricks on the trapeze, trampoline, or tightrope, circus professionals are having an increasingly difficult time practicing their craft. “When I was at my peak, like 16 years old, there were so many trapeze acts you could not count them all,” he says. “Now I can count on my hands how many there are in the United States.”

Typically traveling 10,000 miles a year as a youth, Julio says it’s not uncommon for today’s performers to log more than ten times that distance by crisscrossing the U.S. several times a year. “The performers are traveling too much,” says Julio. “I see a lot of my friends who come into town feeling so much stress.” Though he and Gloria still perform occasionally, they’re glad to have a more settled existence. “People don’t appreciate that we risk our lives and work very hard,” says Gloria. “In Europe, a circus performer gets treated like any other performer, like an actor or an actress. They realize how hard you work.”

Currently about 40 students are enrolled in classes at the gym; several newcomers a day–ranging in age from 2 to 81–have shown up at the trapeze on the lake. “It’s awesome to teach someone what I know,” says Julio, “and to see the joy that they experience when they accomplish a new trick.”

The Gaonas’ trapeze, located just south of the Waveland Clock Tower (between Addison and Irving Park east of Lake Shore Drive), will be up through the evening of Sunday, August 24. For $10 patrons can take a brief crack at flying through the air with the greatest of ease; for $40 the Gaonas offer 90-minute classes every weekday evening and twice on Saturday and Sunday. Reservations are required; call 312-742-8259. The pair will offer lessons in Winnetka’s Indian Hill Park from Labor Day through the end of September. Flying Gaonas Gym is at the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway; for more information see www.flyinggaonasgym.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.