by Eric Barton | January 31, 2024

Hotel Lobby Acrobatics

And other tips for eating healthy on the road, from Ringling’s clowning circus artist

Jan Damm plays Nick Nack, a main character in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's 2024 show. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

A couple weeks ago, I headed into Central Florida to investigate for a story about a great ape sanctuary that’ll appear in the next issue of Flamingo, on newsstands in early March. I figured I’d stop on the way at a Huddle House or drive-through and, despite my resolution to lose a few pounds, eat something battered and contained in a bun made from the whitest of flour. Then I got to Lake Placid and found Morty and Edna’s Craft Kitchen.

All the reclaimed wood and exposed rafters seemed more Wynwood than Central Florida. Its photos online boasted of Mexican street dogs and key lime pie waffles. But I went for the Greek salad with feta and quinoa and a nice piece of grilled chicken. It was terrific not just because it tasted good but because it was so unexpected in a place I had associated, back from my college days, with the salad bar at Sonny’s being the healthiest of options. 

It got me thinking about how to eat healthy on a road trip. And so I reached out to a man who’s lived a life on the road. I met Jan Damm while writing an article that appeared in Flamingo’s last issue, on the rebirth of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. In the modern version of the circus, Damm is something of a ringmaster, emcee, juggler, clown. In real life, he’s married to a tightrope walker and dad to two soon-to-be stars

I asked Damm about tips to stay healthy on the road with the circus. Spoiler: it involves acrobatics in the hotel lobby. 

While I won’t be doing that anytime soon, Damm also has excellent tips for eating healthy in a hotel room. It does not involve even one slice of white bread.

For a lot of us, road trips are an excuse to eat junk food. Considering the circus is in perpetual road-trip mode, how do you avoid that?

Great question! When you're on the road full time, you learn to make some smarter choices for your body and mental health. For instance, I love burritos but I'll choose Chipotle over Taco Bell. I try to save the indulgent meals for special occasions, like going out for a castmate's birthday or, let's face it, for airport days when there's nothing else appetizing available. We travel once a week, and the first thing I do in each town is find a grocery store and stock up on practical food that I can keep with me. 

These days, you're in the Greatest Show on Earth. But you've also worked in much smaller circuses. How do you eat healthy on the road within a tight budget?

At Ringling we stay in hotels, but I've toured in travel trailers of various sizes and in a cruise ship cabin. Each situation requires a different approach. I like to shop for dairy, like cheese and kefir, because it's an easy protein, and I can buy just enough to finish before we pack up and skip town. I also like the prepared salad kits you can get in any grocery store: cheap, healthy, filling and all I need to enjoy it is a dish and a fork. I have a little electric pot that I travel with, and my go-to meal is tortellini, pesto and broccoli. Easy to cook, and it doesn't smell up my hotel room.

If you've been hitting the Pizza Hut buffet a bit too hard, could you talk about how you balance that with wanting to look good on stage?

I've always been on the skinny side, but I came back from a Christmas break a few years ago and was shocked and indignant that my costume felt tight. Well the good news for me is that on this show, performing a tech rehearsal and six shows a weekend means I run up and down an arena, jumping and climbing over moving ramps and staircases, for hours each week. I'm a bit of a glutton for punishment, so I also enjoy running three to six miles to explore a new city. I run enough of a calorie deficit on active days that I can pretty much eat what I want. I also do regular strength training, and I save alcohol for special occasions, so that seems to be working. I only have to go to the wardrobe office because I tear my costume doing pratfalls.

Before performing in the circus circuit, Damm was a children's birthday party entertainer. Photography by Josh Letchworth.
Right now you’re in Florida. But in February, Ringling heads back north. You're in Bridgeport, it's negative 20 degrees and there's no hotel gym. What do you do for a workout?

I live in Vermont and, believe it or not, one of my favorite winter activities is throwing on two pairs of gloves and some trail shoes and running outside, even while it's snowing. But negative 20 might be pushing it. I have to do a handstand on a rolling cylinder about 15 feet above the stage during the show, so a great cold-weather option for me is push-ups and handstands in my hotel room. You can often find our cast in the hotel lobby doing hand-to-hand acrobatics on our days off. After a few days, the other guests get used to it.

Being in the circus, you've been surrounded by athletes doing unique things. Any tips you've learned from them to stay healthy?

Firstly, I think it's important to keep in mind that the acrobats you see in the show, in addition to training incredibly hard for years, were also born with unusual strength and physical ability. So if they tell you they eat a pint of ice cream each day, I wouldn't take it as a tip. However, I think the main tip I've absorbed from my Ringling family is their passion, dedication and daily practice. Cast members also support one another. Every member of the Mongolian teeterboard troupe puts on their costume at the same time each day. This allows them all to warm up together and make sure everyone is doing the drills that will keep them in it for the long haul.

Cheat day on the road: What are you eating?

I love pizza, so I have to say that's my favorite. If I have to pick one kind, BBQ chicken pizza with red onions and blue cheese. I'll eat the whole thing.