Over the years, the Prince William County Fair has had its share of animal novelty acts. Pig racing, ostrich riding, alligator wrestling. Baseball where you ride the base paths on a mule.

One infamous year, it was mule diving. The mule just sort of put its hooves over the platform and fell, a fair organizer recalled.

Two years ago, it was the baboon lagoon and a live shark display.

Last year, it was the so-called "Drag Racing Stinkers"--a pair of skunks racing head-to-head.

So this year, at the 50th anniversary fair, what was the show stopper?

Dancing bears.

Dancing bears?

Jeannette Rix's "Great Little Bear Show," it must be confessed, was unspectacular. At one of her shows Thursday, Rix, dressed in an American Indian costume and with feathers in her hair, emerged from a mock tepee with . . . three dogs.

The German shepherds played around for a while and jumped through hoops. Every now and then, Rix turned to the audience with a broad smile and a shake of her head that conveyed, "Now, can you believe that!"

Finally, the dogs left, the music rose, and three black bears lumbered onto the caged-in stage. Rix turned on a microphone and launched into a history lesson while one of the bears stood on its hind legs and touched its paws together. Oh, it was applauding.

Rix rewarded the bear with a white thing she pulled from a pouch. "Oh, it's a marshmallow," whispered a girl in the audience.

And so it went for about 20 minutes. Three hulking, skulking masses of dark fur scraped around, while Rix bribed them with another marshmallow into bowing or clapping or dancing.

Most of the parents in the seats stared longingly at Matt & Robyn's country music variety show next door.

The show ended. Parents clapped distractedly and tried to drag their kids to the variety show.

But some of the kids tugged back.

With her grandparents watching, 5-year-old Brittney Edwards got up and walked to the cage. Brittney, wearing a yellow shirt with a rainbow and smiley faces, held onto the bars and gazed at the bears as Rix ushered them into the trailer where they spend their days sleeping.

As far as animal entertainment goes, diving mules were for the same people who screamed until they were hoarse at the demolition derby and tractor pull. Racing skunks appealed mostly to boys.

But the dancing bears were for Brittney.

Her eyes rimmed red, Brittney waved goodbye to Lynn, Diana, and Violet, the three sister black bears.

"Sometimes I'll be in the trailer driving through the night to the next fair, and I'll ask myself, 'Why am I doing this?' " Rix admitted during a quiet moment before the Thursday show. "Why do I work so much? Why do I deal with so many obstacles to get from show to show? Why do I spend all my time with bears?"

Jeannette Rix is a lithe, agile 49-year-old who does not look her age. She has the thick, strong hands of a laborer, a dusty tan and straw-colored hair braided to her waist.

She spends most of her year on a farm in Middletown, N.Y., raising bears for parks and zoos. Every year she breeds between six and 10 bear cubs, which are born with fawn-colored hair and outsize claws. Rix said she remembers holding every single baby bear she has raised in her palm, feeding its quaking body with a bottle.

When they are 10 months old, Rix takes cubs away from their mothers to get them accustomed to human contact. She has to bottle-feed the cubs every two hours, and they grow accustomed to Rix's scent and the way she feeds them. Soon they refuse to accept a bottle from anyone else.

Caring for a first-year cub is an all-day, seven-days-a-week responsibility. Young bears investigate everything, dig up everything, destroy everything, she said. "If it can be tipped over or taken apart, they do it," Rix said. "They're like little engineers. They want to know how everything works."

Breeding bears is like raising a half-dozen children a year. And the fair season, which runs from June through September, is like a road trip with the kids fidgeting in the back seat the whole time.

"Why am I doing this?" she asked herself again. She paused for a moment, then answered: "Kids watch the whole show and don't leave until I put the bears into the trailer. They know the bears' names even though I say them only once, at the beginning of the show. I see their faces during the show. The kids love those bears.

"It's a wonderful feeling to have affected somebody like that," she said. "I know this is something I will do as long as I can."

Rix's father was born in Hamburg, Germany, and lived near the Hagenbeck zoo, one of the first natural-habitat zoos in the world. He was taught in Hagenbeck how to train animals without mistreating them, lessons he brought to the United States, where he worked at the Ringling Brothers circus.

Eventually he started training and breeding bears on his own. For 30 years, Rix toured with her father and his 12-bear act. When her father, now 80, and his bears retired eight years ago, Jeanette Rix decided to make her own show.

She picked out three newborn North American black bears and began training them from birth. A good show, she was taught, reflects the personalities of the bears, how they approach things individually.

"Black bears are really shy. It takes real work and real patience to get their personalities into a show," she said. "I teach the bears to think; they know what they have to do, and I give them the space to do it any way they want."

As the bears grew up, she watched them play together and identified some of their spontaneous antics as potential tricks.

From an early age, the bears showed a predilection for sweets. To condition their play into polished routines, she uses, in an average show, a 16-ounce bag of marshmallows.

"It's their job to figure out what they have to do for marshmallows," she said. "Over the years, the bears have learned to make things seems harder than they really are or to add elements on their own to get more marshmallows."

One show, Rix had finished a twirling dance with Lynn and turned to perform the next trick when Lynn put her paw on Rix's shoulder. Lynn wanted more marshmallows. The three-minute impromptu hand-to-hand dancing sequence that ensued is now a permanent part of the show.

"My father taught me to manage bears, to understand their psychology," Rix said. "The bears think the world of me and I think the world of them. By respecting them, they cooperate with me even though they don't have to."

Rix became visibly angry at a suggestion that this kind of training is somehow cruel to the bears.

"They have fun, I know they do," she said. "The bears sleep all day long, but when the show is going to start, they are already sitting in position. They like the activity of it all. This replaces hunting for them. This is their life."

The bear show, performed three times a day throughout the nine-day fair, was stuck in the corner of the fairgrounds, behind a row of barns and partially obscured by Matt & Robyn's country music tent.

Compared with the demolition derby on Wednesday and Thursday nights, which attracted more than 7,000 people to each show, the "Great Little Bear Show" caused hardly a stir.

A week from now, the bear show may not be remembered--not even by Brittney, who after waving goodbye went with her grandparents to a nearby barn to play with the sheep. Rix knows the main reason her show was selected by a committee of fair organizers earlier this year was because hers is cheap relative to some of the more outrageous acts.

But, like her bears, Rix has found contentment in the plain, predictable world of performing at fairs. This is her life.