Circus Performer  What They Do

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dotThe timeless nature of the circus means there will always be room for performers of all kinds under the big top.

But the circus is home to some different types of performers. That makes it hard to come up with one single definition. There is a big difference between a clown and a trapeze artist. And a trapeze artist is different from a contortionist. But underneath all the differences, you will find they share some common bonds.

dotAll circus performers combine elements of showmanship, acting and athleticism in one way or another. They spend years training to perfect one act or one set of skills to create one single moment that will give the audience the sense of excitement and amazement they crave and miss in their daily lives.

They are, in other words, the people who make the circus come alive by performing acts that are funny, dangerous or simply bizarre.

dotThey work for circuses large and small, from ones that cater to families to those that try to recreate the legacy and lunacy of the freak shows. They may also work for themselves, performing on street corners, at fairs and at private functions.

dotPhysical requirements for circus performers vary. If you perform a trapeze routine, you have to be in great shape. But that is the not the case if you want to be a clown.

And a physical disability may not be an obstacle for a career as a circus performer, says Decker Ladouceur. He is the director of a circus arts school. He is also a former trapeze artist.

"It all depends on the disability and the type of act you are performing," he says. "If you have a limb, you can still juggle. I don't think anything like that should step into anyone's choice of making this a career."

Consider Mary Evanoff, a performer from the San Francisco area. She stands 4'10". But she performs a physically demanding routine that includes juggling and pole walking.

dotIt also used to be that people with physical disabilities and deformities consciously joined the circus to earn a living by performing in freak shows. They dominated popular entertainment in North America for almost a hundred years, starting in the middle of the 19th century. They are now illegal, however.

dotWorking hours for circus performers vary significantly. Evening and weekend work are the norm. And you may have to work 10 to 12 hours a day. "[Hours] are very long because it is not just going up and doing your five-minute routine," says Ladouceur.

Training, installing and testing your equipment takes up a lot of time, he says. "It is a lot of work. You are always fixing your equipment. You are always checking your [equipment] because your safety is the most important thing."

dotCircus performers face a lot of job hazards. These include wild animals, dizzying heights and torches. And no matter how prepared they are, they have to be extremely conscious of what is going on during a show, says Thom Britain. He is the ringmaster for a small troupe of circus performers from Birmingham, Alabama.

He badly bruised his arm when a support rope snapped as he performed an escape trick while dangling 20 feet off the ground. "For whatever reason, it snapped, and I went down on my face," he says. "I could have potentially broken my neck."

dotCircus performers also travel a lot. "If you are driving across North America with the circus, you can easily put on 60,000 kilometers [37,000 miles] a year," says Ladouceur. He says one tour took him across the U.S. four times in less than three months.

"Driving from destination to destination is very tiring because when you get into town, the first thing you do is set up your equipment," he says. "And that can take up to six hours, depending on the venue. You might sleep a couple of hours, and then perform that day or night."

dotThe constant wear and tear means that circus performers must be mentally strong. The show must go on, and performers have to look like they are enjoying themselves. This is especially the case for traditional circus performers who have little chance to interact with the audience.

"All they do is smile. And you have to be able to plaster that smile on your face, whether you have a cold, whether you are feeling bad that day, or whether you just had a fight with your husband or boyfriend that day," says Evanoff.

Performers who interact more closely with the audience must show the same mental strength. "You have to be able to make it sound like it is in the moment. That show is the freshest show you have done. That is a skill in itself right there," says Evanoff.

At a Glance

Keep people entertained

  • No matter what happens, you have to look like you're enjoying yourself
  • You have to make sure you keep your equipment in top shape
  • Many performers learn their act through trial and error