Special to South Florida Times
MIAMI — From the moment Andre McClain rode his first horse at 4 years of age, he seemed destined to become a cowboy. As he grew up, his father taught him the skills needed to be a rancher and made him aware of the legacy of the black cowboys who came before him.
One of those legendary performers was William “Bill” Pickett. A descendant of slaves in Texas, Pickett was known as the greatest cowboy of his day and for many decades later. He is believed to have originated bull dogging, a technique in which a horse rider bites the tip of a bull’s nose and lip to subdue the animal, then flips and wrestles it to the ground.
McClain’s father, Lu McClain, was one of a handful of African-American cowboys living in the Kansas City, Missouri area. In 1984, the elder McClain started the first all-black touring rodeo in America, called the Bill Pickett Rodeo. Now called the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, it is still the nation’s only all-black touring rodeo.
Raised on the family ranch in Kansas City, the younger McClain spent much of his time training and caring for the horses and spending years teaching himself to be a performer and cowboy, perfecting rope tricks and bull-dogging. At age 7, he began performing competitively in his father’s rodeo show.
But he had different plans as a cowboy and he pursued his own path. Currently, he can be seen paying homage to black cowboy performers as host of the pre-show for the 140th annual Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
This season’s tour, Barnum’s Funundrum, will be a celebration of the 200th birth anniversary of P.T. Barnum. The show will be staged at the AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami on Jan. 7-17.
Andre McClain, 33, said in a phone interview that when he was a child, the myth was that the circus was full of robbers and people running from the police. “I hadn’t actually seen a circus until I came to Ringling Brothers,” he said. “I was a little taken aback because there were fifth and sixth generations of circus [performers]. It was amazing to me.”
He has now been with the circus eight years.
“Andre has an incredible energy and passion for performing and animals that is contagious, not only to our audience, but to the entire Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey family,” said Nicole Feld, executive vice-president and producer with Feld Entertainment.
From the moment they enter the arena, spectators will be treated to McClain performing rope tricks, fancy gun twirling and target whipping – using a whip to hit a target on someone’s head or from the bottom of the lips.
“Once I go out there on that floor, no matter what you’re going through, my job is to go out there and make you feel great,” he said. “If you’re having a bad day, my job is to flip that day into the perfect day,” said Andre.
Asked what sets this tour apart from the rest, McClain points to an act in which a woman balances her husband on her back wearing 4 inch heels and another of a man lifting 1,200 pounds over his head.
He is also thrilled that the show is being run by women this season. For years, Ringling Brothers’ production has been headed by Kenneth Feld, who has now passed on his duties to his daughters Nicole and Alana. The production managers and director are also women.
And, of course, there is McClain himself.
“I’m a cowboy, first of all. It’s just in the blood,” he said. “It was what I was born doing, taking a wild horse and training and seeing it perform in a big arena for gobs and gobs of people. It’s a dream come true. That’s why I keep coming back.”
Kimberly Grant may be reached at KAliciaG@aol.com.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: 140th annual Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus show, Barnum’s Funundrum
WHEN: Jan. 7-17
WHERE: AmericanAirlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd. in downtown Miami
CONTACT: Call 800-745-3000 or visit www.ringling.com.