10 Circus Acts That Have Withstood the Test of Time

“Come one, come all, to the greatest list on Earth!” Paul Marotta/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
“Come one, come all, to the greatest list on Earth!” Paul Marotta/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Before we get into the acts that have made the circus a hit for centuries (and some might argue millennia), let's first doff our caps to the real hero of the ring: cotton candy.

We can't exactly claim cotton candy was invented in, say, ancient Rome and was enjoyed by folks watching lions tear people apart in the Colosseum. (Big events held in amphitheaters were called circuses, but "circus" simply meant "circle" in Latin [source: Parkinson et al].) But the sticky, sweet stuff was sold at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and soon became a circus staple [source: Historic Hudson Valley]. It's easy to tease its inventor, William Morrison, since he ironically was a dentist and initially called the candy "Fairy Floss."

But let's assume cotton candy shares the characteristic of so many circus acts that have stood the test of time: A little marketing goes a long way to excite the public. And speaking of stirring intrigue, our first entry does just that.

10

Sideshows

Throughout history, many sideshow acts have been exploitative, but today's sideshows are largely progressive. © Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Corbis
Throughout history, many sideshow acts have been exploitative, but today's sideshows are largely progressive. © Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Corbis

Since the 19th century, the sideshow — which featured people with unusual appearances or talents and sometimes paraded offensive stereotypes — has been a part of circus culture [source: Victoria and Albert Museum]. And lest you think it's an act of the past, be assured that there are still numerous traveling shows that exhibit performers. The message has rightfully changed: A lot of the shows these days are progressive acts of empowerment. The performers might be entertaining, but education and acceptance is a powerful tool in contemporary sideshows.

That being said, sideshows of the past were often problematic, to say the least. For one, they might be as simple as showing off a member of an ethnic or racial group seen in the Western world as "exotic" or "bizarre." People born with disabilities or physical conditions were also presented as oddities, and to get away with presenting these folks as specimens, circuses might couch descriptions of the performance with pseudo-scientific language.

9

Equestrian Stunts

It takes a lot of strength and coordination to perform on the back of a trotting horse. © LASZLO BALOGH/Reuters/Corbis
It takes a lot of strength and coordination to perform on the back of a trotting horse. © LASZLO BALOGH/Reuters/Corbis

Since a lot of us equate the circus with lion tamers and acrobats (and don't you worry, we'll get to those), it might surprise you to learn that the horse originally made the circus a hit. Phillip Astley was a former cavalry rider who opened a riding school in London in 1768 [source: Jando]. The big innovation at the place was the "circus," or ring, which allowed spectators to watch the riders perform tricks from every possible vantage point. It's not easy, after all, to have enough space for a straightaway where audience members can see. Astley's 42-foot (12.8-meter) diameter ring is still used as the standard measure for circuses [source: Jando].

Astley began putting on shows of equestrian stunts, drawing people to the ring with his animals' feats. By 1782 he had started a similar equestrian circus in Paris, and competitors began popping up [source: Jando]. However, the circus wasn't just a horse and pony show by now. To add a little excitement to the proceedings, Astley started adding in small little sketches between horse exhibitions.

8

Acrobats

Acrobatics are a linchpin of the circus arts. Victor Chavez/WireImage/Getty Images
Acrobatics are a linchpin of the circus arts. Victor Chavez/WireImage/Getty Images

Acrobats were one of the sketches between acts at Astley's circus, although their original skills were a blend of a couple of other acts we see today. While acrobatic performance has evolved into several different fields, it's worth noting that gymnastic or tumbling skills were a circus mainstay from the beginning.

Because British circuses were equestrian-focused, the first acrobats in the ring used their horses as props. In fact, in 1846 an acrobat named John H. Glenroy made circus history by performing the first somersault on horseback [source: Jando]. (If you want an entertaining account of a 7-year-old joining the circus, do look up Glenroy's autobiography.)

The other acrobatic arm of early circus acts was the floor acrobat who did tumbling or balancing acts. These early floor acrobats began incorporating humor into their performances by creating silly and funny characters. Comedy became a pretty lucrative draw once the circus introduced — you guessed it — clowns.

7

Clowns

Sure, some people may find clowns creepy, but they’ve been entertaining circus audiences for centuries. BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
Sure, some people may find clowns creepy, but they’ve been entertaining circus audiences for centuries. BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Ah, yes. No circus would be complete without painted performers stuffing into too-small cars or hitting each other over the head with rubber chickens. (Is that even a clown act? If it is, let's hope there's more to it than that.) As we said, some floor acrobats from the earliest circus days began to incorporate clowning into their acts, and voila — the circus had its new stars.

Now we can't pretend the circus invented clowns. Although Philip Astley did do a kind of vaudeville act with a clown dubbed "Mister Merryman," and the dialogue was pretty much as silly as you'd expect, clowning and pantomimes existed long before Astley threw his hat in the ring [source: Angelo].

Today clowns are closely associated with the circus. But don't think that all clowns are alike: The true "white-face clown" might be the clever half of a duo who tricks the Auguste (the more naive and thoughtless clown) into trouble or mishaps.

6

Elephants

Elephants acts have been a part of the circus for years, but rising concern for the animals’ safety has forced Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to retire the act within a few years. David A. Walega/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Elephants acts have been a part of the circus for years, but rising concern for the animals’ safety has forced Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to retire the act within a few years. David A. Walega/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Elephants have long been displayed in Western cultures as exotic creatures for locals to gawk at. Sure, they didn't always do fancy tricks or act as a performing pad for acrobats, but even in 1623 there were reports of elephants traveling England in menagerie tours [source: Speaight].

It wasn't until 1820 that performing elephants began to take over the circus scene, where a pachyderm would pick up coins from the floor or doff its keeper's hat [source: Speaight]. In the 1870s elephants began performing in choreographed groups and became a hit [source: Victoria and Albert Museum]. While there's concern about the living and working conditions of elephants in the circus, the trainers also led a risky life back in the day. One famous trainer was killed trying to get one of his charges into a train [source: Speaight]. Because of the controversy surrounding the treatment of circus elephants, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced it will retire the act by 2018 [source: Wallace].

We'll come back to more circus-staple animals, but first let's venture to an even more precarious event.

5

Rope Walking

Tightrope walking requires great agility and balance. Mark Gail/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Tightrope walking requires great agility and balance. Mark Gail/The Washington Post via Getty Images

First lesson of the tightrope: Back in the day, it was referred to as "rope dancing" not "rope walking." While that might seem like nothing more than a semantic difference, rest assured there's a reason folks wanted to portray the act as a more sensual experience. Turns out that ladies walking on ropes could be a tad titillating to early audiences. Some of the rope walkers of the 17th and 18th centuries made a show of removing petticoats for performances [source: Speaight]. Oh my!

Rope acts started much earlier than the circus but quickly became a prominent part of the show. While we typically think of rope acts as the high wire, where performers balance on a taut wire high above the ground, there were actually two other kinds. In the slack rope act, comedians perform on a loose rope strung between two poles. The slope wire, another rope act, curved from a pole to the floor, adding an incline for even more derring-do.

Speaking of daring, how about working with wild cats?

4

Big Cat Acts

The thrill and inherent danger of performing with wild animals has kept big cat acts around for decades. Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images
The thrill and inherent danger of performing with wild animals has kept big cat acts around for decades. Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images

As with elephants, cats — whether they be lions, tigers or some other big feline — were often paraded around in menagerie-like troops for fairs or traveling shows throughout history. In ancient times, however, animals were exhibited for eventual slaughter — they weren't necessarily performing great tricks for audiences. But by the time the circus became popular in the 19th century, big cats were being "tamed" [source: Speaight].

Around 1825 a British menagerie started showing some of the traditional tricks that we still associate with circus big cat acts. A keeper would put his head in a lion's mouth and command a tiger and lion to jump through hoops — the usual stuff [source: Speaight]. But some circuses went for more elaborate role plays, where a keeper acted as Hercules and vanquished a lion.

Although big cats in the ring make us "ooh" and "aah" these days, some very patient souls tried their hand at using house cats in their acts during the 19th century [source: Speaight]. (It didn't last long.) But if herding cats sounds hard, let's try a simpler diversion for our next circus act.

3

Juggling

Jugglers can perform with a many different objects, including bowling pins. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
Jugglers can perform with a many different objects, including bowling pins. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Some of us might associate juggling with clowning, but juggling is an old standby at the circus. In 1820 an Indian juggler named Ramo Samee became quite famous for his performances, and he only had four balls in the air [source: Speaight]. As the circus became more popular, more balls were added to acts, but audiences were restless for another kind of excitement.

Enter the idea of juggling bizarre objects. Jugglers began throwing up whatever they could, from coffee cups to knives. And juggling now might involve a bit more athletic prowess, as jugglers perform on a unicycle or tightrope to raise the stakes of an act.

In Chinese circus acts, just juggling wasn't nearly good enough — not when you could have performers juggling while suspended by their hair. This act, called hair hanging, is making a bit of a comeback in modern circuses, but it might involve more acrobatics than juggling [source: Winship].

2

Aerial Acts

The trapeze has been a circus staple since the act’s first performance in 1859. BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
The trapeze has been a circus staple since the act’s first performance in 1859. BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Where would we be without the flying trapeze? We've already discussed wire walkers and other above-ground acts, but the aerialists deserve their own mention. While we think of the flying trapeze as a circus staple, it was actually part of a longer evolution of aerial acts in the circus. In the last half of the 19th century, the Roman Rings (the rings used in gymnastics competitions) were linked with a bar to create the trapeze [source: Speaight]. Performers found all sorts of fun uses for it, including the Iron Jaw act, in which they held the bar with their teeth.

But it was Jules Leotard who added another trapeze to the act, which allowed performers to fly through the air from one apparatus to another. The first recorded performance was in 1859, and it proved to be such a sensation that a commemorative plaque marks the event at the Cirque Napoleon where it took place [source: Jando]. Of course, Leotard also gave us another circus tradition: the leotard costume.

1

Ringmaster

The ringmaster keeps the show running smoothly. Bill McCay/WireImage/Getty Images
The ringmaster keeps the show running smoothly. Bill McCay/WireImage/Getty Images

No self-respecting circus is complete without a nattily dressed man or woman stepping into the ring to shout the program and keep the crowd excited. The ringmaster, formerly called the riding master from the circus' equestrian history, was an important part of the early circus. While not technically an act, it's a tradition that has continued throughout the modern circus.

While ringmasters often interact with the clowns in present-day circuses, they're really there to present the acts to the audience. Early ringmasters took on the job of emcee, but they were also responsible for keeping the horses at a steady gait while performers did acrobatics on the horses' backs. Hence we often see the ringmaster wearing the red coat, white pants and high boots of an equestrian captain. Ringmasters in early circuses struck their whip on the ground to prompt the horses. The clown, on the other hand, might get a more direct hit.

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Author's Note: "10 Circus Acts That Have Withstood the Test of Time"

While circuses leave some people a little squeamish (the treatment of animals and performers chief among the reasons), the history of the circus can fascinate even the most dedicated circus-cynic. From sideshows to stunts, George Speaight's fantastic book "A History of the Circus" is a great read for learning about how the modern circus took off in Britain and America.

Related Articles

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