Living the circus life 

Karin Houcke and father have it in their blood.

GREATEST NO. 135: This week at Alltel.
  • GREATEST NO. 135: This week at Alltel.

WHAT: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presents the 135th Edition of The Greatest Show on Earth.
WHERE: Alltel Arena, NLR
TIMES: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday.
TICKETS: $14, $18, $27 for VIP and $42 for front-row seats, $65 for Circus Celebrity tickets, through Ticketmaster (975-7575, www.ticketmaster.com, Harvest Foods stores) or the arena box office (975-9000).

When Karin Houcke was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answer was obvious. And though she dabbled as a hair dresser in her Swiss high school’s job training class, and even worked a year in a salon, the circus was always her main attraction.

She’s a seventh-generation member of a circus family that traces its roots to classic European-style shows. Her father, the accomplished equestrian Sacha Houcke, has been with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth for the past five years, directing the Asian elephants and a wide variety of horses, and Karin was part of the team that last came to Central Arkansas and Alltel Arena in 2004.

The Houckes, acrobatic comedian/clown Bello Nock, and all the familiar animals and acts of Ringling Bros. are back at Alltel starting Thursday, Aug. 24, with single shows Thursday and Friday, three on Saturday and two on Sunday.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of animal acts again and we have the human cannonball, this time a married couple that shoot out of the cannon together,” Karin Houcke said by telephone from the most recent tour stop, in Lexington, Ky. “And Bello Nock, the comic clown, he’s crazy.”

You can almost detect Karin rolling her eyes when talking about Nock, who works himself into many of the circus acts, from the high-wire to the floor show with new ringmaster Ty McFarland. Karin Houcke says she only has to be around Nock during his trampoline diving board act. As for McFarland, who has taken over for the retired Johnathon Lee Iverson, she says, “He has a military background. He’s very strong with his vocals. He’s great.”

It figures Houcke should be a good judge — she’s only been going to the circus for all 23 years of her life.

“My parents say I rode a horse before I could walk,” Houcke says. “I went to public schools in my high school years and with the traveling it was very difficult. When I finished high school I thought maybe I should do something else, so I was going toward being a hairdresser. But every weekend I would go to the circus, take the train to where my father was performing and help out with the animals.

“While I was with him, I thought, no, I can’t do a different job. I have to go with the circus, I have to work with animals,” she said. “It was natural for me. I have to be around the animals.”

Her hairdressing training during a year after high school didn’t go to waste, though. “We have 16 dancers and six production women on the show, and we’ll always play with each others hair, and I trim some of the girls’ hair and I do the makeup. We always find something to do around here,” she said.

It’s a busy life, but she found time recently to get a couple of days off from exercising and caring for her animals to marry the head electrician of the show.

“I met him on the Ringling Bros. tour a year and a half ago and we just got married three weeks ago,” she said last week. “We flew our families to Vegas and got married there. We had two days off in Dallas, left on a Sunday night and got married on a Tuesday and flew back that night. He’s from Pennsylvania, and the rest of his family lives there, and my mom lives in Paris, so we just thought it was easier to go to Vegas. I have a lot of friends who live there, so it worked out nice.”

Working with her father isn’t always easy for the young animal trainer, who hopes one day soon to move into Sacha Houcke’s shoes and lead the horses, zebras, camels and elephants. She often practices with her father’s animals along with her own.

“When I’m working around other people and they make a mistake, he corrects them, but with me, he’s stricter, and it’s tough sometimes,” she said. “But when we sit in the dressing room we go over what we did and what I did and this mistake or that, and he tells me in ways that’s different than how he’ll explain something to someone else. But that’s also good, because I understand what he means, and for some other people he talks with, they’ll say to me, ‘What’s he talking about?’ and I can tell them.

“We understand each other from a father and daughter relationship, a father-daughter bond, that’s just different from somebody else. And after the shows, and now with my husband, we go out to dinner and talk about the performances. We like to eat out a lot. We’re a big family in the circus. A lot of other people come along with us. We’re good friends with the band members, the dancers. We’re in a different city every week, food tasting and figuring out who has the better food. The smaller towns always have the best food.”




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