Trapeze artist jumped at chance to join circus

A high school requirement led to Kaely Michels-Gualtieri joining the circus.
A high school requirement led to Kaely Michels-Gualtieri joining the circus. Courtesy photo

Have you ever heard a friend say she was thinking of running away and joining the circus?

Kaely Michels-Gualtieri actually did it.

Before that, she was a Washington, D.C., teenager preparing for her freshman year at Wellesley College.

Michels-Gaultieri is among the performers featured in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey “Built to Amaze!” show that runs Thursday through Aug. 30 at Intrust Bank Arena. The 25-year-old trapeze artist flies through the air in five to eight shows per week.

Her circus adventure started with her private high school’s required two-week internship program. The school closed for two weeks every year while students went out and gained some real-world experience.

First, Michels-Gaultieri had a stint at McDonald’s. The next year she worked at a hospital but ended up spending a lot of time making photocopies. Not exactly thrilling.

So when her mom joked that she should join the circus, Michels-Gaultieri jumped at the idea. She had trained for years as a competitive gymnast, so the idea wasn’t completely unimaginable.

Her mom called a circus school in San Francisco and got it to create an internship for her. Michels-Gaultieri recalls her first attempt at the trapeze. She was wearing a safety harness and was tethered to her coach, a very small woman. When Michels-Gaultieri inevitably missed, the coach was yanked in the air. Still, Michels-Gaultieri had a blast.

“The adrenaline that runs through your system when you do it is nothing like gymnastics,” she said. “In gymnastics, it’s all height, power, controlled movements, but in this, you’re literally flying. I remember thinking, why I am I not doing this every day after school?”

When it came time for college, Michels-Gaultieri’s mom encouraged a gap year. “My mom’s philosophy was that you should do stuff now that you might never do for the rest of your life,” Michels-Gaultieri said. “I packed my bags and moved to Italy to go to circus school. I was the first American who ever went to that circus school in Italy.”

Michels-Gaultieri has no regrets.

“Looking back on it now, I have an education that money can’t buy,” Michels-Gaultieri said. “I’ve toured in I can’t tell you how many countries.”

She works with an international cast, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation circus performers.

“I personally speak three languages on a daily basis,” Michels-Gaultieri said. “It’s sort of funny to be the token American. A lot of the other Americans have circus history.”

In the “Built to Amaze! Show,” Michels-Gaultieri’s stage name is Electra.

“I bring electricity to the show,” she said. “I love it. There’s fireworks that go off in the beginning of my act. Lightning bolts are happening, and so I feel very powerful when I do this act.”

And it’s never just another day at the office.

“There’s muscle memory,” she said. “I can definitely feel the next movement coming before I tell my body to do it, but every single show, the adrenaline starts pumping through my system.”

Michels-Gaultieri is also certified as an emergency medical technician, and she volunteers with crews in almost every city where she performs.

“Riding on the ambulance is a different kind of adrenaline, but it’s definitely still there,” she said.

Michels-Gaultieri says she enjoys interacting with fans, many of whom are young girls, during the preshow and after. And there’s no such thing as a sick day for her – she doesn’t have a trapeze understudy.

“The adrenaline is constant, and I think that’s why I love it so much,” she said. “It’s awesome.”

And it all started with a high school requirement.

“You try stuff when you’re young, and you have some world experience,” she said. “I feel like my career is an exact result of that internship program.”

If You Go

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

What: “Built to Amaze”

When: 7 p.m. Aug. 27; 7 p.m. Aug. 28; 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Aug. 29; 1 p.m. Aug. 30 the all access preshow starts an hour before showtime with an opportunity to meet the cast, learn dance moves, juggle, walk the low wire and watch the painting pachyderms.

Tickets: $10-$45, selectaseat.com, 1-855-755-7328, or at the Intrust Bank Arena box office