There was never any doubt in Eli Albarracine’s mind as to what he wanted to do with his life. Since he was a boy in Colombia, South America, he has had both feet planted firmly in midair, it was at the tender age of eight that he climbed out of his boarding school window, lowered himself to the ground on a chain of knotted bed sheets and ran away to join the circus. That was where the aerialists were, and Eli Albarracine wanted to be a circus flyer more than anything else in the world. Now, 24 circus seasons later, he feels the same way, and so does his co-star, his 26-year-old wife, Rosalda.
Together, they are billed as the “death-defying Albarracine Duo,” freelance flyers commanding $200 a day, $1,250 a week. To build the box office for their latest booking, a three-week stand with Circus America in Washington, D.C., they dangled from a construction crane 100′ over a downtown traffic circle (right). As ever, they worked without safety nets.
The Albarracines did not fly to their trapeze prominence with the greatest of ease. After cajoling a circus-owning cousin into hiring him, Eli made his debut sweeping up the stables, tending the animals and bedding down anywhere he could find a warm spot. It was a comedown for the son of a wealthy Colombian landowner and planter, but Eli was fulfilling his dream. “I was a bad boy, I guess,” he recalls. “All I ever thought about was the circus. I hated school, and after the third grade I quit for good.”
His first performance under the big-top consisted of leaping through a hoop ringed with knives. “I cut myself many times,” Eli remembers with a wince, “but soon I learned.” That was the beginning, and from there he proceeded to learn tumbling, the art of balance, working aloft and how to fall with just the right degree of relaxation to avoid injury. While still a teenager, he became known as “Hugo,” the daring trapeze artist.
It doesn’t take much more than a reputation like that to turn any young girl’s head, and it proved irresistible indeed the day the circus played Rosalda’s hometown. “I met him when he visited a neighbor,” she remembers. “We started writing, and here we are.” Although she was only 13, Rosalda ran away to join Eli and the circus. “My parents called the police,” she says, “and Eli spent the first five days of our marriage in jail.” Rosalda’s parents eventually accepted her marriage and career, but Eli’s folks have all but disowned him. “My father saw my act once and said I was crazy,” Eli recalls. “He told me to come home and complete my education like my brothers and sisters. He does not understand how I love the circus. I used to write, but they never answered. I have not seen or heard from them in ten years.”
Eli and Rosalda were apart for most of their first three years, as he wandered with circuses in Latin America, Bermuda and Hawaii, living, as he remembers it, “like—how you call it—a bum.” When Rosalda finally joined him, she soon felt “embarrassed and left out because family acts are traditional to the circus.” Eli quickly decided he had to make her into an ae-rialist. It was all the more remarkable because Rosalda was delicately built and feared great heights. But after three grueling years of pushups, situps, splits and gradually higher trapeze stunts, she was ready, and the Albarracine Duo was born. That was seven years ago, and they have since performed at heights as great as 100′. Unlike most other circus teams, they use neither a safety net nor protecting cables around their waists. “We are not puppets,” says Eli. They have never fallen together, but Eli has suffered many fractures, and his nose is splattered across his otherwise handsome Indian-looking face. Palpably, the daily threat of injury or worse deepens the Albarracine relationship and the physical expression of their affection toward each other and their family.
Their children, Wilton, 12, Rosalda, 10, and Gloria, 8, will never run away to join the circus because they are already inextricably a part of it. They sleep in the camper truck that tows the big house trailer which is their parents’ master bedroom. Their living arrangements are the same even in the five or six months a year the Albarracines are between bookings in Sarasota, Fla., and the children’s schooling is by correspondence course. The kids have developed a balancing act of their own called the “Wee Gets,” which their parents want to keep on the ground. But Wilton is already working on the high wire and dreams of being a flyer himself one day.
Even off-season, to stay in shape their parents must do their act at least once or, ideally, twice a day. His working weight is 120, hers 107. “If I were to stop practicing for a few weeks now at my age, I could never do the act again,” says Eli. Eventually, even perfect condition will no longer be enough, as Eli recognizes. “We will continue until our arms and legs tell us ‘no more,’ ” he says, patting his limbs. “They will let us know when it is over.”