Arts & Culture

Ring Masters

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Shari and Steve Ashman and the Circus Arts Conservatory

Shari and Steve Ashman never really appreciated the circus at all until they moved to Sarasota, a town known throughout the world for its association with the Big Top. But when they attended a gala at the Circus Arts Conservatory a couple of years ago, that perception dramatically changed.
“The first thing I noticed was the young people and how confident they looked as they walked around,” Shari said. “We attended some performances the kids put on at the Sailor Circus and Circus Sarasota and we knew the Circus Arts Conservatory was an organization we could get behind.”

Shari saw how the circus is inextricably tied to the history of the city. “There are references to it everywhere you look, which cannot be said of any other place in America,” she said. “And because the Circus Arts Conservatory is committed to preserving the history of this very special art form through performances, youth education and legacy activities, it is worthy of our support. We encourage others to support it as well.”
Shari and Steve grew up in Miami, but worked nearly 30 years in the Washington, D.C. area. Steve was in the banking business and Shari owned a successful direct marketing company. When they retired in 2014 they chose Sarasota because of the many exceptional arts organizations that call this area home. In addition to the Circus Arts Conservatory, they actively support Asolo Repertory Theatre, the Sarasota Ballet and the Sarasota Orchestra.

“When residents support such organizations, they not only enhance the quality of life, they preserve the value of their property,” Steve said.
According to the CAC website, Sailor Circus started out in 1949 as a small high school gymnastics class and has grown into a top circus school in the country. Over the last six decades, thousands of students have completed the Sailor Circus training program. Each year, students train with coaches and volunteers to create performances that have evolved into a major tourist attraction in the Southwest Florida region. The Sailor Circus Academy also offers a summer camp for children ages 6-15, which takes place in one- and two-week sessions during June, July and August.
“At the Sailor Circus I saw an impressive relationship between the young performers, the faculty that coach them and the parents,” Steve said. “They were, and are, so actively involved with the performance. It’s an unusual and special collaboration.”
The Circus Arts Conservatory is much more than a circus. Approximately 80 percent of ticket revenues help support its community outreach programs that serve children, the elderly and those in care facilities. These include the Humor Therapy Program, the Education Program and the Sailor Circus Academy, which all help preserve Sarasota’s unique circus legacy through education, human service and the performing arts.
The Ashmans support the CAC through donations and their own unique brand of public relations.
“We do a lot of talking about it,” Shari said. “And, coming from D.C., we have talked up the CAC’s appearance next summer there, on the National Mall. We’re looking to get everyone we know to plan their vacations around that. We’re impressed with the conservatory and of course with co-founders Dolly Jacobs-Reis and Pedro Reis. We want our friends to understand that this isn’t a circus that walks animals around. People know what the ballet is and what the orchestra is, but I’m not sure they get the circus as something that brings so much to children in terms of self esteem and confidence.”
“We admire all of CAC’s programs that involve public school kids in Sarasota County,” Steve added. “And we want to do all we can to help Dolly and Pedro preserve and perpetuate the wonderful legacy they’ve built through this organization; that although circus arts are not a uniquely American art form, they are a different kind of American art form that is very important.”
Steve added there are a lot of arts organizations in Sarasota, making it “a crowded field,” but the CAC is one that must not get lost in the shuffle.
“I think the CAC and the Sailor Circus are truly unique,” he said. “I think people have to be exposed to it to really appreciate it. It’s in your own enlightened self-interest to support the arts, because they’re all that separate Sarasota from any other beautiful coastal town in Florida.”

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