People around the world are familiar with the image of a beautiful trapeze acrobat flying overhead with grace and style.
But while there are many compelling acts at the circus, the trapeze may be one of the most iconographic symbols of freedom, wonder, and human achievement.
What is a Trapeze Acrobat?
A trapeze acrobat is a type of aerial artist who uses the trapeze as their primary apparatus to perform show-stopping tricks and sequences.
At the professional level, trapeze acrobats are performative artists whose job is to wow audiences with 4-5 minute acts. usually with set choreography, costuming, and live or recorded music.
A trapeze artist may work for an established circus or an entertainment agency, giving performances at festivals, corporate events, or other events.
These athletes spend years perfecting their craft and must devote substantial hours to regular conditioning, training, and rehearsing for shows.
A trapeze acrobat is also known as a trapeze artist or a trapezist.
Trapeze: The Apparatus
A trapeze (or “trap” for short) is a horizontal bar suspended by two ropes from a ceiling point or from a freestanding aerial rig. The ropes are usually parallel to each other with the exception of the low-flying or dance trapeze.
The Latin word trapezium stands for a geometrical shape borrowed today by the modern trapeze.
Types of Trapeze Performed
There are generally five styles of trapeze practiced and performed in contemporary circus:
- Flying Trapeze
This may be the most familiar type of trapeze in the public imagination. Here, flyers climb a small, hanging ladder and use the trapeze bar to literally fly across the area overhead, traversing an impressive volume of airspace.
On the other side, a catcher is situated in a strong inverted position with knees hooked, ready to catch the flyer by the hands, arms, feet, or legs.
These feats occur at dizzying heights above a large safety net. Flying trapeze is frequently performed by groups of multiple artists, forming a troupe.
- Static Trapeze
This popular contraption is shaped similarly to the flying trapeze but remains “fixed” or static throughout the performance. One, two, or even three or more performers can create aerial shapes and sequences to impress their adoring crowds.
In terms of logistics, the static trapeze generally requires much less airspace overhead, as the bar can be closer to the ground than is needed for a flying trapeze troupe.
A rope or length of fabric may be tossed over the bar and then used to climb and mount the apparatus for the main presentation.
- Swinging Trapeze
This whimsical circus act brings the polished skills of static trapeze with the playful swing of the flying trapeze. Combining the best of both worlds, swinging trapeze is similar to the cloud swing, which is a swinging apparatus made of rope similar to a trapeze.
The swinging trapeze requires enough space to accommodate the artist vertically as well as on its horizontal trajectory.
- Dance Trapeze (also called Low-Flying or Single-Point Trapeze)
A major difference in the dance trap is that it comes to a single point above forming a triangle. This allows for more freedom, including lateral movement and circular motions on and off the apparatus.
This form often works with dance techniques and focuses on movements that flow artistically in and out of the floor. With fluid transitions, the low-flying trapeze may be considered less trick-based and circus-oriented and more concerned with contemporary dance.
- Washington Trapeze (the Head Trapeze or Heavy Trapeze)
In this version, we see a heavy bar that can be adapted with other contraptions such as hand balancing canes. In this way, the Washington trapeze can synthesize other disciplines with aerial arts in an inventive way.
To best showcase the performer’s talents, this apparatus might start very close to the ground and then be raised high into the air by a mechanical winch or another type of lift system.
Famous Trapeze Artists
- Jules Léotard
The most famous trapeze artist was its original inventor, Jules Léotard, who debuted the act in November 1859. Léotard developed this innovative number using a swimming pool as his safety net, rigging his new contraption overhead.
But there was no such thing as a safety net for performers in the 19th century. Léotard laid out mattresses below the show area while executing his balletic movements in the air. Today, the use of mattresses as safety mats for aerial arts is not recommended!
The trapeze act was met with great fanfare and handsome compensation for Jules. “Flying through the air with the greatest of ease,” as the song goes, the Frenchman also left the leotard, an acrobatic garment, as a legacy to circus artists everywhere.
- Antoinette Concello
The famed Antoinette Concello may be one of the most beloved trapeze artists of the 20th century. Known as the “greatest woman flyer of all time”, Concello was the first to execute the high-risk triple somersault. She appeared to great fanfare for many years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Tips for Beginning Trapeze Acrobats
Are you interested in trying your hand in the most exciting of the circus arts? Try the static trapeze to begin. A good instructor will teach you the basics with a simple progression.
The skills you learn can be sharpened on the static trapeze, or they can be translated into virtually any other aerial art form.
All aerial arts are inherently dangerous. Many artists have been gravely injured or even killed while training or performing. For this reason, it is critical to remain vigilant about safety.
Always work with a qualified instructor who can spot you as you learn. Also, be sure to have a crash mat or safety net under you at all times to catch you if you fall.
Rigging must be checked before each session, and do not attempt to install rigging yourself. Instead, work with a structural engineer or professional rigger.