Flying through the air with the greatest of ease is in the Sheley family DNA.
For Rich and Linda Sheley, it is where their story began, and daughter Hannah is carrying on the family tradition under the Big Top at the Illinois State University Gamma Phi Circus.
Rich, a 1985 ISU graduate, who went back to grad school and joined the Gamma Phi Circus, and Linda, a 1987 ISU grad, performed together in the 1986-87 circus.
“When we say we met in the circus, people look at us weird,” said Linda. “But then they say they wish they had a story like that. Rich also wrestled my brother back when he as at Rock Island so there was that connection, too.”
“I was looking for something different,” joked Rich about meeting his wife in the circus. “It’s a small world.”
Linda, who had been involved in tumbling since she was young, said she joined the circus after having attended a performance when visiting her sister at ISU; while Rich, who wrestled at ISU, had been in gymnastics as kid growing up, and he had friends that were gymnasts, so he just ended up in the show.
Now, daughter Hannah is following in her parents’ footsteps as she joined the Gamma Phi Circus last year during her freshman year at ISU.
“I decided to join because my parents were involved, I grew up seeing the shows and it always interested me with my gymnastics background,” said Hannah. “I had been interested in the circus, and when I went to the open house everyone was so welcoming and super friendly. I knew they were people I wanted to be around.
“A lot of people wonder if I am still in school when they hear I am in the circus. People are really shocked and are blown away.”
The Gamma Phi Circus is the oldest collegiate circus in the United States and was started in 1926 by Clifford “Pop” Horton, a gymnastics instructor at ISU, who organized groups of men to perform pyramids and tumble during basketball and football games. In 1929, Gamma Phi was founded as a fraternity that was dedicated to physical education, fitness and gymnastics.
The Gamma Phi fraternity renamed itself the Gamma Phi Circus in 1931 and over time separated itself from Greek life.
The circus has developed over the years to include acts as: tightwire, teeterboard, trapeze, Russian swing, Russian bar, Acro sport, Adagio and aerial hoop.
The Gammi Phi Circus, which is comprised of students, staff and faculty at the school, performs its main show of the year in the spring, but also have a winter show, which is for school staff and family, and several exhibitions throughout the year.
Page 2 of 3 - At ISU, the circus begins the first day of the school year and the performers practice three days a week for three to five hours. The circus holds an open house for interested participants and then they train before tryouts, and after the Thanksgiving break performers found out what act they will join.
Hannah currently participates in tumbling and Acro Sports acts, which are made up of team tricks, pyramids and flips, but also is training on the Russian bar, which is a thin balance beam held on the shoulders of two men. The person on the beam is thrown in the air. She also is learning the teeterboard, which looks like a teetertotter. Performers do flips and also have one performer jump down onto the board from a higher platform and launches the other on the other end into the air.
“It is crazy to perform in front of a big crowd in Redbird Arena,” said Hannah, who says the show is similar to Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus or Cirque Du Soleil. “At the kids’ show this year, in one of our tricks we were suppose to come down at the same time, but we couldn’t hear each other because the crowd was so loud. It was a crazy feeling with the people there. It is exciting, but also a lot of pressure.”
“The circus is a great thing to be involved in,” said Linda. “There are a lot of similarities in the show (between then and now), but they take it to a new level.”
“It was fun and the people work really hard,” said Rich. “It went from the typical three-ring traditional circus to a newer Cirque du Soleil style.”
With Hannah involved in the circus it has given Linda and Rich a chance to relive their experience and reconnect with old friends.
“It was fun to be there this year as parents of a performer and be with all the alumni,” said Linda. “They are excited to hear we have a daughter in it. There also is another circus couple who we were in the circus with that have a daughter in the show with Hannah.”
“(Former circus performers) are people we consider good friends, but don’t see that often because we don’t live in the same area,” said Rich.
“It is fun to get feedback and a lot of people are shocked at the quality since we are full-time students,” said Hannah.
“It is pretty polished for the turnover in performers each year,” said Rich. “It is a lot more artistic than the typical circus.”
Page 3 of 3 - “It is fun for us to watch and listen to the reaction from the crowd,” said Linda.
“I am definitely going to continue doing the circus,” said Hannah. “I even joke that I am going to stay in college just to be in the circus.”
To learn more about the ISU Gamma Phi Circus, visit gammaphicircus.illinois