Living a life of glamour in the bright, dusty spotlights of the center ring may be an alluring prospect to many. But performance is not a circus acrobat’s only gig. A peek behind the curtain can demystify exactly what it is that acrobats do in a circus.
An acrobat may perform many roles beyond that of a featured entertainer, but their primary function is to present death-defying acts to adoring crowds, from the very young to the timeless. Acrobats may also play a key hand behind the scenes, helping to ensure that each show runs smoothly and safely.
What Acrobats Do
Acrobatic skills may be ground-based or aerial and may also make use of props or other apparatuses. Equipment like a Cyr wheel or hand balancing canes can greatly elevate an acrobat’s skill set. Many times, a combination of these different elements can be used to create an unforgettable act.
Here are a few examples of acrobatic acts:
- Floor-based, hand-to-hand partner acrobatics
- Aerial silks
- Martial arts such as WuShu or sword dancing
- Animal acts
- Tumbling and trampoline
A contortionist might hone her hand balancing or aerial skills, while a tumbler might join his act with martial arts to create a spectacular show. Acts of this caliber take great effort to perfect, along with a lot of cooperation from others.
While some acrobats come to the circus having trained since childhood, others discover their passion later, in their 20’s, 30’s, and beyond. Some, perhaps more rarely in modern times, are born into an established circus family and get their training directly from their parents and siblings, along with others in the circus community.
Regardless of when and how you come to be involved with the circus, a strong background in physical arts is helpful and desirable. A foundation in creative movement disciplines such as gymnastics, ballet, ice skating, or martial arts can be ideal for priming the young and hopeful acrobat.
Getting a late start in the demanding world of the circus may present extra challenges, but it’s certainly not impossible.
Conditioning, Training, and Rehearsals
To achieve the ideal act, an acrobat may train for up to six or eight hours daily for an upcoming show. This will include a thorough warm-up, conditioning exercises, skill drills, and act or full-show rehearsals with the company.
An acrobat must also adhere to strict nutritional guidelines in order to maintain that ideal physique that we associate with a performance artist. In addition to rigorous physical training and diet, some include mind training and meditation into their regimen. Sleep is also extremely important, despite the demanding schedule of the circus.
In order to thrive in such a world, an acrobat must also be a great show person. Most will come to the art with a twinkle in the eye, and for others, this may be a skill that is learned. But however you approach it, the circus is all about its entertainers.
An acrobatic performer assumes a degree of risk to showcase these highly technical skills. As if in trade for the glory they find under the big top, some may find an untimely halt due to injury or accident.
For this reason, safety measures are a top priority. One false move could spell the end of a treasured career, or worse.
Age and the Acrobat
In any profession, there will come a time to retire. For an acrobat, whose work relies heavily on being in top physical shape, the clock will tick loudly after a certain age.
The timeline varies for everyone. While the practice of acrobatics is great for the body, it also takes a toll over the years. Having a side hustle under your belt will help ease your transition.
However, there are many exceptions. Artists such as Johnny Hutch and The Amazing Sladek have broken age barriers in the circus, inspiring generations to come.
Behind the Curtain
The acrobat enjoys a position in the spotlight, but many of their jobs and duties might be performed behind the scenes. In a traveling circus, their workload may also include tasks such as:
- Helping to erect the tent
- Driving between destinations
- Busking or sideshow performances
- Stagehand work
These tasks may or may not be part of the acrobat’s contract with the circus. Working on rounding out your skill set is wise if your dream is to be part of a circus.
The fanciful world of the circus acrobat is exciting, but not without serious risks. It takes an investment of years to perfect the skills required to entertain and appeal to a wide audience, but in the end, as many circus veterans will tell you, the work is often its own reward.