You're at the circus. Not the old-fashioned Barnum & Bailey-style circus with lion tamers and "Ladies and gentlemen!" but the modern version popularized by Cirque de Soleil — darker, more exotic and very, very French.
The lights go down and a single spotlight illuminates a man in the center ring. He's alone, except for a large aluminum ring that he grips with one hand like an oversized hula-hoop. With practiced nonchalance, he rolls the heavy ring on its edge, causing it to trace a slow path around him.
Touching the ring again, he sends it into a slow wobble like a giant toppling coin. With perfect timing, the man steps in, out and around the spinning and wobbling ring in a well-choreographed dance.
Then, with athletic precision, the man steps onto the wheel with both feet and grabs the edges with both hands. For a second, he resembles a rolling image of Leonardo da Vinci's famous "Vitruvian Man."
Using the wheel's own momentum, he begins to execute increasingly difficult spins and inversions, turning graceful somersaults and dizzying pirouettes. For the climax, he raises both feet off the wheel and extends his body outward, appearing to almost be carried away by the wheel while somehow still controlling its every motion.
This dazzling spectacle is called the Cyr wheel, or roue Cyr in French. The 33-pound (15-kilogram) ring is named after its inventor, Daniel Cyr, a Canadian circus performer who showcased his simple innovation in 2003 at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain ("Circus of Tomorrow World Festival") in Paris. Cyr (pronounced "seer") won the silver medal for a stunning routine on his homemade apparatus [source: Cirque Eloize].
In little more than a decade, the Cyr wheel has taken the circus world by storm. Hundreds of amateur and professional acrobats, gymnasts and street performers worldwide now use the wheel in their acts, continually testing the limits of this versatile device.
History of Acrobatic Wheels
Like most great ideas, the Cyr wheel wasn't plucked out of thin air. Instead, it was an idea that had existed for nearly a century in various forms before Daniel Cyr gave the simple metal ring — also known as a mono wheel — its latest and greatest incarnation.
Acrobat and Cyr wheel performer Valérie Inertie has assembled a wonderful history of the wheel and its predecessors on her website.
Possibly the first modern performer to incorporate a mono wheel apparatus into her act was the innovative American dancer Doris Humphrey. Promotional photographs from a 1923 piece called "Scherzo Waltz" show Humphrey with one leg raised high while her right hand balances a large metal ring incredibly similar in dimensions to the Cyr wheel.
The next landmark happened in Germany in 1925, when a former railway worker named Otto Feick created the Rhönrad, also known as the German wheel. Feick claims the inspiration for the Rhönrad — which is made from two parallel metal rings and resembles a large hamster wheel — came from a childhood experience of being rolled down a hill in an iron-rimmed barrel.
The Rhönrad enjoyed a period of wild popularity between the two world wars. Feick sold tens of thousands of the double wheels in Germany and demonstrated his invention to appreciative crowds in London and New York City. The Rhönrad was taught in school gym classes and used to train pilots. For the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, 120 Rhönrad athletes displayed their head-over-heels talents in the opening ceremonies [source: Inertie].
The first mass-produced mono wheel — the closest predecessor of the Cyr wheel — was invented in post-war East Germany by Adalbert von Rekowski in the early 1950s [source: Winkler]. Called the Einreifen, the single-wheel apparatus had straps for attaching your feet to the ring and a handlebar for gripping.
When Daniel Cyr began playing with mono wheel designs in the 1990s, he would have certainly known about the double-ringed German wheel, but probably not the Einreifen, which had long dwindled into obscurity. Cyr claims to have been inspired to create the Cyr wheel after seeing a large hula-hoop and a circular wrought-iron coat rack [source: Inertie].
Cyr's first model was formed from a single piece of rough steel. In later iterations, he switched to aluminum for lightness and added a PVC coating for a smoother spin. Eventually, he came up with a highly portable design that could be broken down into five pieces and reassembled easily with screws [source: Inertie].
Next we'll chronicle the Cyr wheel's rise to fame through its best performers and biggest shows.
The Cyr Wheel Takes Off
Daniel Cyr, a graduate of the National Circus School in Montreal, began his circus career as a "free ladder" specialist, an act in which the performer climbs and balances atop a free-standing metal ladder, sometimes juggling for added difficulty [source: National Circus School]. In 1993, Cyr co-founded Cirque Éloize — a variety show modeled on Cirque de Soleil — and began to experiment with designs for the Cyr wheel.
Cyr performed with the wheel publicly for the first time in 1998 during a Cirque Éloize production called Excentricus [source: Inertie]. Over the next four years, he toured with the circus throughout North America, Europe and Asia, performing his evolving Cyr wheel routine at every stop. But it wasn't until his silver-medal performance at the 2003 "Circus of Tomorrow" festival that the Cyr wheel became a bona fide circus art.
Before 2003, Cyr had taught a handful of fellow Cirque Éloize artists how to use the wheel. After his triumphant performance in Paris, he was asked to mentor other performers, including Valérie Inertie — our helpful historian — who became the first Cyr wheel artist to perform outside of the Cirque Éloize.
In 2005, none other than the Cirque de Soleil came calling, asking Cyr to help them develop a Cyr wheel act for their show "Corteo." Cyr was also asked to perform his mono wheel routine as part of the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy [source: Cirque Éloize].
Cyr returned to his alma mater to train instructors at the National Circus School in Montreal how to teach the next generation of performers how to use this versatile apparatus [source: Inertie]. The Internet also spread the wheel's popularity, with dozens of YouTube videos showing performers, and websites selling professional-quality Cyr Wheels for less than $1,000.
Enough history, let's get spinning.
How to Use a Cyr Wheel
The beauty of using a Cyr wheel is that it can be as simple or complex as you wish. The apparatus is exactly the same for both beginners and professionals. With practice and patience, just about anyone can learn how to perform some basic Cyr wheel movements.
The first step is choosing the right size for your Cyr wheel. Most Cyr wheel manufacturers recommend buying a wheel that's roughly 3 inches (8 centimeters) taller than you [source: Coggs]. It's important that you can stand comfortably inside the wheel and that you can easily reach the edges of the wheel with your arms fully extended in the 10 and 2 o'clock position.
Wear loose clothing. Going barefoot or wearing socks work well for indoors, but you probably need sneakers if you're practicing outside on pavement. You'll also want to position the wheel on a non-slippery surface.
The key to getting started on the Cyr wheel is finding your balance. The basic Cyr wheel posture is to stand straight up, arms extended, and hold the wheel slightly forward in front of your body. This "V" shape places the center of gravity right in front of your chest [source: Tribble].
Before you try any spins, try simply standing on the wheel on the balls of your feet and balancing for as long as you can. Once you feel comfortable, try some of these basic starts and spins:
- Skate start: With one foot on the wheel, push off with the other foot like you're riding a skateboard. Add the "pushing foot" to the wheel and continue spinning.
- Wheel-to-toe start: Start the rotation of the wheel with your arms and step onto the spinning wheel.
- Roll-by start: Start the spin with your arms in the 9 and 12 o' clock position. Twist your torso to hold the wheel to your side and spin it across the front of your body as you step onto it in one fluid motion.
You can find video tutorials for these three basic starts and more advanced moves on instructor Sam Tribble's YouTube channel.
In an interesting collision of past and present, the Cyr wheel has caught on with a fringe sports subculture that's existed since the heyday of the German wheel. Learn more about "wheel gymnastics" on the next page.
Remember the German wheel, the two-ringed "hamster wheel" also known as the Rhönrad? It turns out that the playful athletic device first built by Otto Feick in the 1920s still has an ardent following. Starting as early as 1960, serious German wheel practitioners have been competing in championships of so-called "wheel gymnastics" [source: Inertie].
The International Wheel Gymnastics Federation (IRV) was founded in 1995 to continue the German tradition of competitive wheeled acrobatics. For the German Wheel, there are three competitive gymnastic disciplines [source: IRV]:
- In straight line competition, the gymnasts roll their wheels back and forth along a straight line while executing complicated inversions and rolls
- In the spiral competition, the athletes cause the wheel to spin and wobble like a large coin
- For the vault competition, gymnasts stand atop their wheels and execute high-flying flips and twists before sticking the landing
IRV world championships are held every two years. For the 2011 event in Arnsberg, Germany, the Cyr wheel was included as a demonstration sport. Instead of having each competitor do a traditional choreographed routine, two Cyr Wheel athletes were pitted head-to-head in a Cyr Wheel "battle" [source: Inertie].
The 2013 Wheel Gymnastics World Championships in Chicago marked the first time that the Cyr Wheel was included as an official competitive discipline along with its own "Code of Points" [source: IRV]. A panel of judges rates the competitors on both a technical program (without music) and a free program (with music). The Cyr Wheel gymnasts are required to perform certain maneuvers to achieve maximum difficulty, and are judged on execution, difficulty, and in the case of the free program, artistic impression [source: IRV]. The rules were updated and expanded for the June 2015 championships in Ligano, Italy [source: IRV].
Does wheel gymnastics sound like fun? There are more than 500 wheel sports clubs worldwide, including nearly a dozen in the United States. Contact the IRV member association in your country to learn about opportunities to try both the German Wheel and Cyr Wheel. Or you could always run off and join the circus.
Author's Note: How the Cyr Wheel Works
I want to go to circus school. Researching this article, I had a chance to dig around the website of the National Circus School in Montreal. You can actually get a college degree — fine, diploma — in the "circus arts." That's awesome! Imagine what it must be like to be a college student at circus school. Monday morning is trapeze class, followed by advanced juggling and an evening seminar on the clowning arts. Think of the people you'd meet at this place; wonderful weirdos from around the world! I can't believe they haven't made a movie called "Circus School" about a misunderstood American kid who goes off to circus school, where he teams up with a ragtag crew of French Canadians to shock the world at the international wheel gymnastics championships. Wait, I copyright that! That's mine!
More Great Links
- Cirque Éloize. "The Cyr Wheel" (Feb. 5, 2015) http://www.cirque-eloize.com/en/who-are-we/the-cyr-wheel
- Coggs Performance Art Fabrication. "Cyr Wheel Q & A" (Feb. 10, 2015) http://www.coggscircus.com/q-and-a-cyr-wheel/
- Firetoys. "5 Part Cyr Wheel – PVC Coated" (Feb. 5, 2015) http://www.firetoys.com/balance-props/cyr-wheels-german-wheels/cyr-wheel-collapsible.html
- Inertie, Valérie. "The Cyr Wheel" (Feb. 5, 2015) http://www.inertie.ca/historique_roue.php
- Inertie, Valérie. "History of Previous Wheels Devices" (Feb. 5, 2015) http://www.inertie.ca/historique_appareils.php
- International Wheel Gymnastics Federation. "IRV Code of Points 2015: CYR Wheel" (Feb. 5, 2015) http://www.rhoenrad.com/uploads/code-of-points/cyr_wheel/2015/2015_IRV_CYR_Wheel_Code-of-Points.pdf
- International Wheel Gymnastics Federation. "Mono Wheel Rules IRV." 2013 (Feb. 5, 2015) http://www.rhoenrad.com/uploads/code-of-points/cyr_wheel/Mono-Wheel-Rules-2013-v1-2.pdf
- International Wheel Gymnastics Federation. "Wheel Gymnastics: A sport that turns the world upside down." YouTube. Oct. 17, 2013 (Feb. 5, 2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTK6X6rGeQU&t=187
- National Circus School. "Cyr Wheel" (Feb. 5, 2015) http://www.nationalcircusschool.ca/en/artiste/circus-arts-disciplines
- Tribble, Sam. "Spin Tutorials Lesson 1 – Getting Started with the Skate Start." YouTube. Jan. 4, 2012 (Feb. 10, 2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZqgEb1LVNM
- Winkler, Joerg. "The Real History of Mono Wheel." GYMmedia (Feb. 5, 2015) http://www.gymmedia.com/wheel-gymnastics/real-History-Mono-Wheel-Cyr-Wheel