'Circus as Education', Reg Bolton - Australasian Drama Studies, Vol 35. Oct 1999

Australia's Flying Fruit Fly Circus, with its associated High School, recently celebrated its twentieth year. It was founded by the Murray River Performing Group (now Hothouse Theatre) in 1979, to celebrate the International Year of the Child. Two years earlier, Suitcase Circus was founded in Edinburgh, Scotland, with the aim of establishing local community circuses and youth circuses. Neither company had any real awareness of a tradition of participatory Circus for young people.  In my book New Circus (1985) I listed and described many of the different kinds of amateur circus activities happening around the world, together with a listing of the thirty-one known Circus Schools. Today the first list would number hundreds, maybe thousands, and there are probably around sixty Circus Schools.


Clearly something is afoot. A movement is growing. Thousands of otherwise normal people are learning juggling, flying trapeze, unicycling - almost every human-based circus skill. In this article, I shall look at the appeal and benefits - intellectual, physical, social and emotional - of what we shall call `Recreational Circus'. Then I shall hazard some answers to the question: `If this Circus stuff is so "Good For You", why has it not been universallv adopted by schools; why is there so little Circus in Education?'


The academic image of circus

A search of the academic literature indicates a very low number of post­graduate theses and other papers on Circus-related themes. For English speaking undergraduate study, the options are growing. In Melbourne, NICA (National Institute of Circus Arts) offers five hundred TAFE-accredited hours in their current training project. Charles Sturt University at Bathurst, the Tisch School of Arts at New York University, and others offer a Circus Arts course as part of a more general degree. Christchurch Polytechnic in New Zealand, Circus Space in London and Circomedia in Bristol offer 2-3 year Circus training providing tertiary qualifications. The best-endowed vocational Circus Schools are at Chalons-sur-Marne, France and Montreal, Canada.  There are important centres of training in San Francisco, in South -kmerica, China, Eastern Europe, North Korea and, hopefully, still in Russia.


So where is the scholarship?


Visit any library, especially any university library, looking for books on criticism or aesthetic studies of different art forms.


There are shelves and shelves full of music theory, literary criticism, visual art analysis, drama studies. You'll find semiotic readings and endless de-constructions all the above. Now look for the section of Circus studies. You'll be lucky to find one volume! There is a maxim among publishers: 'No-one buys Circus Books'. Well, I do. I am the custodian of a collection of over five hundred, including history, biography, fiction, juvenilia, art, technique, and some criticism (in Chinese and French). Maybe I buy Circus Books because I write them. This is the principle of the Karmic Hitch-hiker.  `I pick up hitch­hikers because one day I might need a lift myself.' The pragmatic world of publishing acknowledges no such karmic resonance, nor, it seems, does the academic world.  There is a pitiful dearth of academic work on Circus because it is presumed that no-one wants to read it.


This may have been the case in the past, but my assertion is that things have changed. Thousands of people have taken up Recreational Circus. Many schools in many countries have begun to include elements of Circus on the curriculum. New Circus companies are springing up all over the world. Circus is being used by environmental, humanitarian and peace-making groups (eg Croissante-Neuf in England, Circus Ethiopia, Belfast Community Circus. Even the very corporate Cirque du Soleil has linked itself with Oxfam and Community Aid Abroad.) New, high quality journals are now published which raise the standard of review way beyond the chronicling of acts and the adulation of artists which are traditional among the Circus Fans' or Friends' magazines. Spectacle produced in the USA constantly questions tradition, and highlights the individual creativity and originality of all types of Circus artists. Le Monde du Cirque and Planet Circus are glossy multilingual journals featuring quality photos and sparkling essays, reviews, interviews, portraits and philosophies of many of our best writers in the field.


We have not yet a clear idea of who reads them. My theory is that there is a growing population of well-educated people who, like myself, are not at the front line of Circus performance, but who have a great interest in and affection for this field of human endeavour.  We may revel in the irony of such a sophisticated art form dismissed by masses as `clowning around'. We may believe that Circus is the purest form of dramatic art, drawing its power from that same magic that endowed the shaman as he suffered and soared for his `primitive' audience around his ritual ring of fire. We may be convinced that Circuses showing animal acts are the pioneers of a new breed of `Show 'n' Tell' environmentalists, whose mission is to bring the experience of exotic animals to the public in a last, desperate attempt to persuade us to curb our consumer lifestyle, and to save enough planet for wild life to remain wild. We may see Circus as the best example of our fin-de-siecle preoccupation with cross art-form collaboration, a true `hybrid' art.


However much we may enjoy the new journals, and look forward to some real Circus scholarship, we might have to concede that our enthusiasm for the written word identifies us not only as Circus aficionados, but also as dilettantes. A recent informal survey of leading performers at the National Circus Festival at Albury/Wodonga asked `what books have inspired or influenced you as a performer?' The answers included several pure technique manuals (e.g. juggling and diabolo), some inspirational works like Henry Miller's `The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder', and then works on associated disciplines like theatre, yoga and feminism. Many performers couldn't credit any books, and no respondents cited works on Circus history, philosophy or aesthetics.


My experience of traditional Circus people leads me to generalise that literature is not a major part of their culture. Early itinerant performers in Europe, like Aboriginal people in Australia, maintained a tradition of passing on `business', within the family, typically father to son, mother to daughter. There were never any written histories nor do-it-yourself manuals either for making boomerangs or for flying trapeze. This lack of literary communication among Circus folk could be due to secrecy, or illiteracy, or to the pointlessness of transmitting complex physical skills through the written word.


Today, the act which has by far the largest bibliography in the `techniques' section of my Circus library is Juggling. It almost outnumbers all the others combined. There is nothing on Trapeze, precious little on Wire-walking. Why? Because Juggling is the ideal Circus Skill for the amateur. Hobby jugglers don't need a venue, an installation, or even an audience. They can simply satisfy themselves, or a friend, that they have improved their three-ball cascade, mastered Mill's Mess, invented a new pattern or set a new record in seven-ring endurance juggling. Juggling also attracts students and intellectuals, notably mathematicians, computer programmers and engineers. Such people love the challenge of notating their own achievements and understanding the notations of others. There's a thing called Site Swap, which magically enables a juggler to describe any juggling pattern in a series of simple numbers. I understood it once, but I also almost once understood a page of Dawkins' Brief History of Time.


I have seen epic jugglers watch other heroes do battle with the laws of gravity in more and more complex patterns. They closely observe the mesmerising knots of aerial Celtic scrollwork and then analyse, transcribe and COPY them. Jugglers are pretty clever people! It is not surprising, then that this branch of Circus Skills should be the one that generates the most books, journals and websites. It is sometimes argued that recreational juggling is totally removed from the Circus. They barely have a common ancestry. Recreational jugglers rarely visit the Circus, and Circus people only grudgingly acknowledge the skills of the dedicated juggler. There is some truth in this, but a recent event inspires me to believe that the divorce is not absolute.


The 1999 Australian Circus Festival was combined with celebrations of the Fruit Flies' twentieth anniversary, and a highlight was a full programme presented by `Fruities' graduates. This took place under their own Big Top, before a full house comprising a mixture of Festival patrons - both performers and recreational circus enthusiasts - and a home crowd of the Albury-Wodonga general public. The performances were outstanding, but only one act received a standing ovation. It was Earl Shatford, the juggler who had grown up through the Fruit Flies, and who now works North American cruise liners. His act was slick, cabaret style, with courageous moves brilliantly executed. He had returned to his home town to devote some months training a new generation of children at the Fruit Flies' Circus School. People like Earl are the links between the disparate elements that make up Circus today.


Articles like those in this journal and the new generation of Circus magazines will also provide such links. Needed now are good books, websites and features on Circus in journals devoted to sport, arts, recreation, tourism, community development, self-improvement and health. When a wealth of such material has reached the public, then the wider world may come to realise that Circus is a largely untapped field of study. Minds as well as bodies will be dedicated to Circus arts, and that tired journalistic put-down of our endeavours -`just clowning around' may finally be laid to rest.


Physical education

I have a theory, which I shall develop elsewhere, that sport is far too adult a concept for children, and far too childish for adults. Organised sport is a development only of the last century or so, and is today unashamedly linked with commerce. (Can anyone explain the difference between Globalisation and Americanisation?)


I have argued in New Circus that almost all sports are martial in nature. Most are confrontational, and consist of propelling a missile (ball), either by dominant hand or foot, or with a propulsive device (bat) as fast, or as cunningly as possible at a target. This is ballistics. This is imitating war. It is ironic that the latest European war started by imitating a game. The bombardment of Serbia was rightly described as the Nintendo War. Actual misery was translated to the TV audience as virtual reality. We could almost hear an electronic `Ta-Daa!' as the puff of smoke erupted dead centre on the screen, and the occasional Pacman-like gurgly `Oops!' when we zapped an embassy or a column of refugees. How much longer will our society tolerate the creation of teams, codes and cultures before our very eyes, for the blatant purpose of selling fizz, hamburgers and scarves? Success of the Sports Industry is predicated on our willingness to revert to tribal hostility. Adoration of the warrior, ritualisation of combat, the `tragedy' of defeat, the ecstasy of victory - all were described by Homer twenty-seven centuries ago. One would have hoped that description of war would begin to lessen our appetite for it, but it seems that the Iliad may be required reading for those advertising gurus whose influence clearly dominates contemporary sport.


In the search for an alternative, we should consider Circus as the basis of a reformed curriculum for physical development. Those of us active in teaching Circus Skills to young people already have an understanding of the benefits. We may be standing too close to realise what a comprehensive range of skills is provided in the totality of Circus training.


Strength is achieved, not by action with chromed steel weights, but by the much more subtle interaction with one's own, or another's body weight. There is a current passion for de-construction with everything. In education it is manifested in dreadful expressions such as `competencies' , `outcomes' and `behaviours'. In the world of physical training, now called `fitness', you see it in the range of exercises, the expensive gadgets in the gym, and the appropriate shoes and clothes you need to wear in order to service each muscle group, each action, each aerobic and anaerobic nicety. Most dogs and cats are fitter than most humans I know, and I rarely see them decked out in the logos clutching the plastic water in the shining gym.


Flexibility is a dirty word in Aerobics and in the primary school. In Aerobics, you may bend (carefully), you may step (gently), you may sweat (fashionably), but you may never twist your spine.  If you want to see yourself in another mirror, you never twist round, you do a three-point turn. As a child, you may do what you like on the public park's monkey bars (if there any left), you can do forward rolls on your bed, and push up to a bend­back on the beach, but NOT AT SCHOOL. Teachers are paranoid about the possibility of injury and ensuing litigation. You may protect the staff from lawyers, protect the little children from injury, but what are we doing to the species? The child who has a good rolling relationship with the ground will not become the parent who falls down the stairs or the sixty-year-old who breaks a hip at the first fall.


Circus acrobats, especially aerialists and contortionists, are rarely the victims of self-imposed strains or injuries. Their training is progressive, and they usually maintain strength and flexibility well into old age. We are awaiting any evidence that super-flexibility of the spine does any damage. Reaction speed and good peripheral vision are essential for survival on the road. Even that eminent authority Arnold Schwarzenegger advised a young would-be boxer to `learn to juggle' to improve the arnbiant vision needed for that `sport'. I have already hinted at the intellectual challenges inherent in Juggling. Physically, it is so much more sophisticated than any other ball skills. It is creative, it is infinitely complex, it is generous rather than aggressive, and, as advocates always explain, it uses both sides of the brain - whatever that means.


Strength, flexibility, speed and reaction are some of the elements of any programme of physical development. Add to these the qualities of fun, and measurable progress, and it is clearly time to consider seriously what Circus training offers Physical Education.


Social education

Just as I prefer Cooperation policy to Competition policy, I would prefer a system of training based on Integration rather than De-construction. Circus strength and fitness is based on what each person needs. It results in a body that can work with rather than against another; a person who can support, not one who would defeat another. It all seems so much more civilised.


It is still easier to gather a crowd to watch a fight rather than a recital. It may be easier, but it is essentially regressive and calling on our primitive selves. What, then does it tell our children when we turn up every Saturday morning, shouting and hollering, urging them to defeat someone else's child? How much more progressive is the ritual of performance, where parents come to see, and celebrate what their child can produce of him/herself, not in an arena where they can become a loser, or, worse, a winner over their young peers. In performing arts, whether of Drama, Music, Dance or Circus, the child is learning so much about form, history, culture (how we do things), and about responsibility, commitment, perfectibility, and about the human quality of generosity in performance.        Most of us remember all our lives those occasions when we took part in school plays. The experience goes very deep indeed, and it is a shameful omission of teachers if they do not provide opportunities for this wonderful effect. The School Circus, once the teachers have the confidence to produce it, can combine the benefits of Musical, Dramatic, Dance and Sports display, with added opportunity for the school to create an original Visual Arts extravaganza.


The history and actuality of Circus is a model of Multi-Culturalism and Co-Existence. It is a universal art form with an ancient and diverse pedigree. To study its history and contemporary development is to see the world in microcosm, its variety, its challenges, and its ever-changing view of itself. Circus offers scope for debate on issues such as inter-species relationships, race, high-art/low-art, risk, child exploitation, management, truth in advertising, and much more.


In Social Studies, Circus is both metaphor and reality.


Emotional development

The history of Circus is full of inspiring role models for young minds. Instead of accepting transitory pop idols and hyped sports performers, children may be inspired by individuals like Con Colleano, Coco, Lilian Leitzel, or contemporary artists who dedicate themselves, like explorers, mystics or scientists, to taking the human race to places it has never been. That is the essence of Recreational Circus.  It is to go where one has never been. It is to flirt with the impossible. It is to dream, then to make it a reality.


Many of the elements of Circus are archetypal in a Jungian sense, meaning that they are written into our individual emotional code. We contemplate flight, and achieve it. Circus performers confront our traumatic bugaboos of fire, sharp blades, falling, bondage, snakes and wild beasts. They face them, and they survive. We face them vicariously when we go to the Circus. We ourselves may float over air when we learn to walk a tight rope. We can become gigantic on stilts. We can apparently defy the laws of physics, when we juggle or ride unicycles.


Children must dream. In their Circus, they live their dreams.


Children must also take risks. That is what childhood is for. That's how you learn.


Children need to touch people. They need to be able to physically trust themselves and other people.


Children must also show off. Children should be seen and heard. Through performance, they learn to show off appropriately. They will be noticed, they will be applauded.


The child who successfully passes through all these things - Dreams, Risk, Trust and Showing Off - as a child has a better chance to emerge as a normal teenager and a productive, loving adult.


So, why not Circus in Schools?  What is preventing it?


The informal survey of artists at the 1999 National Circus Festival asked this very question. If there had been one consistent answer, the path would be clear; but, no, there was different answer from almost every respondent. Some answers were staggeringly simple. It's too marginal - too small a part of people's lives. It's too much fun. School will spoil it (these two from children). There aren't enough long words involved. It's your obsession, it's too silly... Others considered logistics like an unachievable teacher/student ratio, or insurance premiums. Some compared it with other school subjects, pointing out the lack of resources, accreditations, and lack of career path for teachers or students. There's no exemplary model of success, no identifiable qualified spokesperson without an obvious vested interest. Several artists believed there are too many prejudices against Circus in the conservative minds of the average teacher - `gypsies, freaks, animals, clowns'.  We are dealing with people who live by cliches (`this School's a Circus already, Ho Ho Ho!')


Australia loves sport.  If you don’t make it as a sportsman/woman, you can always go in for sports administration, sports medicine, sports psychology, sponsorship, fitness, sports marketing etc etc.  Who ever heard of a career in the Circus?



I once spent a day introducing Circus Skills to third-year Phys Ed students. It was a huge success. I suggested to the Head of Department that here was evidence that she should consider adding Circus to the training curriculum. She laughed. She said, `You'll have to join the queue'  `What queue?  'Oh, you know, all the other weird sports - wrestling, rock climbing, boot­scooting.'


We are faced with several paradoxes.


Circus performance thrives on apparent impossibilities and great risk. Yet, in training, and in Circus in Education, the work is clearly progressive, based on clearly defined achievements (competencies!). In performance, the limits are known, the performer will be safe. This contrasts with sport in which every action invites an unequal and opposite reaction, with various attendant hammies, groins, corkies and observations of the blood rule.


Yet they will say that Circus is dangerous.


Circus was the first performing art form to be taken across Australia.  It remains one of the most popular and one which, contrary to popular opinion, is growing. Overseas, the New Circus companies such as Circus Oz, Ra Ra Zoo, Legs on the Wall, Strange Fruit, Flying Fruit Flies and others have earned Australia a reputation for being in the vanguard of the new movement of Physical Theatre. Australian theatre, music and dance would envy this reputation.


Yet the taste-makers of Australia would totally dismiss the Traditional Circus as an art-form, and would quickly denigrate our home-grown culture at the first sighting of the Corporate Cirque du Soleil.


Traditional Circus is, to this writer, an exemplary model of Arts Management. When considering the mountain of tasks involved in every move - marketing, packing, freight, tent erection and maintenance, animal husbandry and grazing, insurance, safety regulations, contracts, training, on the road repairs, education of children, compliance with municipal by-laws, and so on - one may look in vain for the office full of administrators. The CEO of this considerable undertaking is quite likely to be in the ring, in full make up, as a clown.


Yet, Circus is made the metaphor for chaos.


Yet, arts funding goes to companies who may lay off all their artists for months at a time, maintaining a squad of professional submitters. Funding is not the issue, except that along with the imprimatur of funding goes the aura of quality assurance.


The perceived low status of Circus in our community, our press, and our intelligentsia makes it an uphill struggle to gain acceptance in schools. Ultimately, the answer is in perceptions. Australia is still a young enough country for us to make a difference. Only in Canada are opportunities greater for Circus in Schools. Those who would like to see Circus Arts closer to the mainstream of our culture, and Circus Education achieve a real presence in schools, must work to alter the traditional misconceptions. However, this must be done with caution, with respect, remembering that Circus thrives on mystery and hyperbole, and would be reduced if all its processes were laid open to the public gaze.


The great Hungarian magician Korari used to end his show with the words, `If you have enjoyed my show, please tell your friends. If you have not, please tell me, and I promise I'll tell no-one. Now, give me a big applause please.' With Kovari, one always felt very special, as if one was a privileged friend. Perhaps that is how it must be if we are to effect the spread of Recreational Circus, especially in schools. We must look for away in which each person we speak to, each reader we write for, feels they have a special backstage pass. They must trust us that if they come backstage with their friends they will not be embarrassed, but will be welcomed, will be enlightened, will be amazed and will be safe. More than that, they will be a better person for the experience.


Reg Bolton's Choice of Twelve Interesting Circus Books



Spangles and Circus - The Circus in Australia by Mark St Leon

Women's Circus - Leaping off the Edge by The Women's Circus



A Seat at the Circus by Antony Hippisley Coxe

A History of the Circus by George Speaight



Circus Techniques by Hovey Burgess Circus in a Suitcase by Reg Bolton



On the High Wire by Philippe Petit

Big Apple Circus by Peter Angelo Simon

The Pickle Family Circus by Terry Lorant & Jon Carroll

New Circus by Reg Bolton



Love, Let Me Not Hunger by Paul Gallico

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter


Reg Bolton's Choices of Circus Journals Worth Subscribing to -



PO Box 1420

Edison, New Jersey, 08818-1420 USA

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Plane Circus

Circus Verlag

Am Latourshof 6

D-41542 Dortnagen Germany


Le Monde du cirque

25 Bd de Port Royal, 75013 Paris



King Pole

Kiln Hill House

Taylors lane, Pilling

Lancs, England PR3 6AB

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Schinbergstr. 92

D-65199 Wiesbaden. Germany

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The Catch

Moorledge Farm Cottage,

Knowle Hill

Chew Magna,

Bristol BS 18 8TL


On One Wheel

PO Box 40534

Redford, Michigan 48240 USA



PO Box 218, Montague

MA 01351, USA




PO Box 1002

Springwood, QLD 4127, Australia



PO Box 361

Northcote, Victoria 3070, Australia