Circus disciplines

Circus disciplines are the specialties in which acrobats work and that involve physical virtuosity and risk, and pushing boundaries. A major source of circus expression, they are also on the cutting edge of new advancements in circus arts, contributing to their technical evolution and the invention of new apparatus. Circus disciplines also encourage acrobatic aesthetic explorations and each requires a specific register of circus movements. They are grouped into broad categories based on the apparatus or rigging used and the skills and abilities required to practice them. 

  • Aerial AcrobaticOpen or Close

    Aerial acrobatics likely originated with the practice of tightrope dancing at medieval fairs. They encompass all disciplines requiring the rigging of an apparatus at a height, e.g., a bar, rope, trapeze, silk, etc. With the exception of tightrope performers, aerial acrobats use the force of their arms and hands to lift or move their own body or that of their partners. Catchers or flyers perform at a height in a fixed position, or while swinging or flying. Aerial hoops, rings, chains or straps are among the aerial acrobatic apparatus used.

    Aerial Rings
    Aerial apparatus employed by gymnasts composed of two suspended metal circles. While either stationary or swinging, the ring artist may use them to perform turns, swivels, drops and balances.

    Aerial Cradle
    Fixed aerial apparatus that consists of a rectangular metal framework, often affixed under the cupola of a circus tent, in which the carrier kneels to assist the flyer in performing various aerial acrobatics.

    Russian Cradle
    Apparatus composed of one or two gantries equipped with platforms fastened to the ground at variable heights facing forward, upon which stands a carrier, or one on each end as required, attached to the platform at the waist. This position allows the carriers to propel one or more flyers, who then execute various aerial acrobatics. This apparatus is often added to installations along with Flying Trapeze numbers.

    Aerial hoop
    Circular aerial apparatus made of metal in varying diameters that is attached at one or two points and in which the acrobat performs acrobatic moves. The hoop may be fixed or swinging, used elevated on high or close to the ground. When a hoop is worked at floor level, the acrobat can use the feet to propel it and may choreograph moves, vary the speed, etc.

    Corde lisse
    Aerial apparatus consisting of a cotton rope stranded or braided to a 3-to-5 centimetre diameter that hangs vertically upon which the acrobat executes various acrobatic tricks and moves. The Spanish Web may be used with a loop into which the acrobat can insert either the hand or foot to accomplish various feats while rotating, with the help of rotational push provided by an assistant on the ground.

    Cloud Swing
    Aerial discipline consisting of a slack rope attached at both ends to form a swing roughly 6 metres long. As it swings, the acrobat performs holds, turns and other aerial acrobatics. Used in the seventeenth century by Tightrope walkers, this discipline predates the invention of the Trapeze.

    Acrobatic specialty of Asian origins, consisting of two thin parallel straps several metres in length, along which the acrobat rolls and unrolls using the wrists and arms to execute rises, falls and acrobatics, all the while suspended. The straps also make it possible to perform large rotations the length of the ring, granting remarkable grace as the acrobat rises.

    Aerial discipline derived from the Aerial Rope made up of a large length of fabric folded in half to form two fabric panels hanging vertically from a hooking device, inside which the acrobat rolls and contorts to execute various acrobatic moves and tricks. As with the straps, the fabric makes it possible to perform large rotations the length of the ring, granting the acrobat remarkable grace while in flight.

    Swinging Trapeze
    Discipline using a simple trapeze suspended at a great height and requiring a range of 14 meters, upon which the acrobat balances to perform various moves and acrobatics.

    Dance trapeze
    Discipline evolving from the Aerial Hoop using a simple trapeze attached at one end alone, upon which the acrobat performs choreographic and acrobatic movements. The Dance Trapeze may be static or swinging, used at a height or lower to the ground. The Dance Trapeze executed closer to the ground allows the acrobat to add impulse using the feet, perform choreography, vary the speed, etc.

    Static trapeze
    Discipline using a simple Trapeze hung at various heights upon which one or two acrobats execute moves and acrobatics without using the trapeze's swinging movement. The Static Trapeze employed by two acrobats strongly resembles the Aerial Cradle, as the carrier attaches himself to the trapeze by the bend of the knees, enabling the flyer to perform various aerial acrobatics.

    Washington Trapeze
    The broad bar of this metal trapeze is balanced by two counterweights. Normally, the middle is hollow or has a round metal piece called a round or plate to facilitate headstands. The inventor of this apparatus is H.R. Keyes Washington (1838-1882). 

  • BalancingOpen or Close

    In ancient times, tightrope walking was prevalent in Greece and Rome, while balancing acts executed atop long bamboo poles were very popular in Asia. Balance is a fundamental quality for circus artists and physical balancing prowess engages the entire body of the acrobat, alone or with a partner. An acrobat may balance on a surface reduced to the minimum, or a stand or object. Through controlling, stabilizing or immobilizing either the human body or objects in extraordinary and original positions, balancing plays with the laws of gravity. The more the point of contact with the ground is reduced and is raised, the more spectacular the feat. Balancing combines several disciplines and uses techniques on the floor, close to the ground or at a height. A wide variety of apparatuses and accessories, such as the bicycle, balance ball, tightrope or slack line may be used.

    Discipline in which the acrobat executes acrobatic balances or tricks using a bicycle in an original fashion, quite removed from or exaggerated in comparison to its usual function. In the New Circus movement, the bicycle often serves as an allegory for the horse.

    Rolling Globe
    Large-diameter, up to 1.5 metres, wood or plastic sphere upon which the performer walks while executing acrobatic feats. Some jugglers also use the Rolling Globe in their numbers to increase the level of difficulty.

    A simple ladder that the acrobat climbs and maintains in an upright position through constant movement of the hips creating a perpetual side-to-side motion, and then performs mounts, balances and other acrobatics at the top. A Ladder number may be combined with certain Hand-to-Hand or Juggling moves in order to increase the level of difficulty.

    Hand balancing
    Ancient acrobatic discipline dating to antiquity that requires the acrobat to execute various moves and acrobatics while balancing on the hands or head, either on the ground or on some sort of apparatus. The main apparatus used in balancing is called canes, two metal rods set at varying heights and capped by small blocks, upon which the acrobat can place the hands to perform the balancing moves.

    Tight Wire
    Apparatus consisting of a metal cable suspended horizontally between two mounts upon which the acrobat moves and executes a series of moves, balances, dance steps, leaps and acrobatics.  Tight Wire is generally performed at a low height, often metres from the ground, distinguishing it from another tightrope walking form, the High Wire, which is performed at a great height.

    Slack Wire
    Related to the Tight Wire, the difference being there is a slack tension to the cable or rope so as to create a curved line between the two mounts. The acrobat moves along the wire and by rocking executes a series of moves, balances, jumps and dance steps.

    Derived from the bicycle, this device was invented by Italian Alessandro Scuri in 1880. It consists of a single wheel with pedals and a saddle upon which the acrobat performs various acrobatics, balances and jumps. Unicycle is often practiced in conjunction with juggling.

    Invented by a Frenchman, Vasque, in 1898 this discipline consists of standing and balancing on an unstable assembly of boards supported by cylinders roughly 25 centimetres in diameter.  Rola-Bola may be combined with other circus disciplines, such as Juggling, Hand to Hand, etc.

    German Wheel
    Of German origin, this apparatus is comprised of two large metal circles joined along the perimeter by a series of short bars, inside which the acrobat stands and uses his own impetus to propel the wheel, whirling and performing acrobatics while defying the laws of gravity.

    Cyr Wheel
    Acrobatic disciple derived from the German Wheel invented by Quebecer Daniel Cyr, cofounder of Cirque Éloize and composed of a simple metal circle in which the acrobat moves. Using his own impetus, he is able to turn unceasingly while executing acrobatics. As opposed to the German Wheel, the Cyr Wheel's structure allows more fluidity in the rotations, which accents the dynamism of the discipline.

  • JugglingOpen or Close

    Juggling is the family matriarch of the manipulation disciplines. This adroit and agile art can be traced to the days of antiquity, and may be practiced individually or in groups. Juggling involves tossing into the air or along the ground several objects that may be of any kind, including rings, balls, clubs and so forth, without letting them fall and timing their relaunch so that they may be caught again. Juggling practice is frequently combined with another circus discipline such as unicycle, tightrope, rola-bola, etc. There are also subcategories of juggling;  balancing juggling, for instance, involves balancing various objects—bowls,  glasses, balloons, and the like—often stacked on the head, forehead, or feet.

    Sometimes called Foot Juggling, this ancient juggling discipline was once practiced by the Aztecs. It involves, once the juggler is lying on a trinka (a low sloping armchair), juggling various items with the feet, such as cylinders, barrels, carpets and other objects.

    Juggling specialty made popular in the early nineteenth century by Indian artists Medua and Mooty Samme. It consists of using two sticks to manipulate a baton roughly 80 centimetres in length, usually tapered in the middle.

    Juggling discipline of Chinese origin derived from the top. It is practiced using two sticks connected by a taut wire upon which slide one or more diabolos, double isosceles bobbin-like objects. The juggler makes them spin and then propels them, twirling into the air along different trajectories. Its name refers to the sound made by air rushing through the coil; the “noise of the devil” it was said in the eighteenth century.

  • Clowning ArtOpen or Close

    Derived from the English comedy of pre-Shakespearean times, the clown was originally a comic character, a country jester. Clowns first appeared in equestrian and acrobatic burlesque, and then became broadly comic and grotesque characters within pantomime and circus shows. Clowning arts combine acting, mime, farce and slapstick to create sketches that make audiences laugh. The first famous pantomime clown was Joey Grimaldi (1778-1837).

  • Equestrian ArtOpen or Close

    Towards the end of the eighteenth century, after the war, there were many demobilized cavalrymen and horses accustomed to difficult battlefield conditions at loose ends. Both contributed to promoting the popularity of show horsemanship that led to the birth of the classical circus. Equestrian arts involve working with one or more horses to perform dressage, academic riding, vaulting, and so forth. Some equestrian disciplines, such as the musical ride, high school or garrocha, require the rider to be seated on the horse while for others like voltige or the Hungarian post the acrobat must stand on the back of a galloping horse. Bareback numbers feature horses without a saddle or harness guided by their trainer as they perform choreography.

  • Floor acrobaticsOpen or Close

    These ancient disciplines of strength form the foundation of circus arts. Acrobatics consist of executing figures that may involve jumps, balances or contortion on the floor. Of Greek origin, the word “acrobatics” means “one who walks on tiptoe.”  Banquine, balance beam, Russian bar, hand-to-hand and trampoline are all floor acrobatic disciplines.

    Acrobatic discipline executed at ground level by two carriers who, using their arms, catapult a flyer to stand on the interlaced hands of the carriers, a position called banquette. The impetus allows the flyer to perform acrobatic leaps and return to the starting point, the ground, or the banquette of a second team of carriers. 

    Russian Bar
    First employed by Boris Isaevy in 1958, this acrobatic discipline is executed on the ground by two carriers who support, either on the shoulder or arms, a flexible bar upon which a flyer stands upright and performs a variety of precarious moves.

    Chinese Hoops Diving
    Specialty originating in China, consisting of a set of wooden or metal hoops of varying diameters that are balanced one on top of the other on the ground, through which the acrobats propel themselves while performing various acrobatics.

    Acrobatic Chair
    The Acrobatic Chair is straight and solid enough to allow the balancing acrobat to accomplish various balancing and acrobatic moves on the ground. The balancing artist may use the Acrobatic Chair singly or by stacking one or more. The Chair Pyramid is a circus discipline wherein the artist uses a large number of chairs stacked one upon the other, and then performs balancing moves at the top of the structure.

    The practice of extreme physical flexibility, thousands of years old, which allows the contortionist to accomplish exaggerated  positions using extreme stretching, flexing and bending of the arms and legs. The practice of Contortion can be divided into three categories: backbending, frontbending and dislocation. Backbending has its origins in travelling shows while frontbending originates in Asia. A contortionist may practice more than one type.

    Icarian Games
    Discipline evolving from acrobatics and Antipodism that involves, once the juggler is lying on a trinka (a low sloping armchair), in propelling a flyer through space, who then executes various balancing moves and risky jumps. A second team of carriers and flyers may join the number to perform various hazardous jumps and to allow the exchange of flyers.

    Hand to Hand
    Demanding acrobatic discipline performed by two or more acrobats on the ground in which the carrier executes various moves involving strength, balance, elevation and flexibility by carrying the flyer on the hands or sometimes the head. There are two forms of Hand to Hand:  Dynamic Hand to Hand and Static Hand to Hand. Static Hand to Hand often is executed in a smaller space, because the carrier and flyer perform only moves involving strength and balance with no great need to move through space. The feats of balancing and strength are presented in a slow manner, so that the audience can fully appreciate the skill and endurance of the acrobats. Dynamic Hand to Hand makes use of the entire performance space with much larger movements and a faster rhythm to some moves, since the carrier provides the propulsion via a push of the arms to the flyer, who is able to perform different acrobatic jumps landing on the shoulders of the partner, another carrier, or the ground. Several individual types of acrobatics, synchronized or not, are often added to the number. Because of certain qualities and the fact it is practiced by two acrobats, Dynamic Hand to Hand is similar to Banquine.

    Chinese Pole
    Apparatus of Asian origin consisting of one or several vertical metal posts fixed into the ground and generally 3-to-9 metres in height, along which acrobats move, climbing and executing various moves and acrobatic jumps. An offshoot of the Chinese Pole is the Swinging Pole, similar except that rather than fixed into the ground it is suspended by cables at the top to hang roughly 60 centimetres from the ground. The Swinging Pole allows the acrobat to inject more dynamic and diverse moves into the number due to the swinging movement created by the pole.

    Korean Board
    Discipline similar to the Teeterboard that was invented by artists from North Korea. It consists of a rocking board upon which two acrobats stand and then are catapulted in turn, continuously performing vaults, spins, and other acrobatic jumps.

    Discipline evolving from gymnastics that first made an appearance in circus shows at the beginning of the twentieth century. It consists of an elastic film of varying sizes stretched between supports on a footed frame, upon which acrobats execute various acrobatic moves and jumps. The trampoline is often used with other acrobatic disciplines to augment the height of the flyers' leaps.

    Collective number involving several acrobats wherein one or two pushers leap onto one end of a rocking board from atop a pedestal and catapult flyers into the air. The flyers perform acrobatic feats before returning to the ground, to the shoulders of a team of carriers, or to a perch or chair. For some time this discipline was a specialty in Eastern European countries.

By Anna-Karyna Barlati
© Please note that this circus arts terminology is an original intellectual creation that enters the scope of copyright. Any reproduction, adaptation, translation and/or modification, partial or complete, or transfer to another site are prohibited without the prior authorization of the National Circus School.

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