A-Z List of Circus Acts (2022)

The A-Z of Popular Circus Acts

The circus is fun to visit and draw. Bright colours, noise and spectacle add up to an entertaining mix of skills, humor and excitement.

From clowns to trapeze artistes there is something for all - especially children. Many people remember their first visit to the circus and this collection is partly a stick figure homage to those memories.

In adult life there are lessons to learn from the circus. Balancing acts, plate-spinning have similarities with busy working lives. How we cope is whether we become a ring-master or backstage worker, clown or juggler, or maybe a high-flying trapeze artist!

This page contains circus acts from A-Z. Main ring performances are covered along with a few sideshow acts which the larger circuses might hold in a separate tent.

Without further ado and with a huge sense of anticipation here is your ringmaster for the evening.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (1)

Circus Ringmaster Gifts >>

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Welcome to the Circus!Put your hands together for the first act of the night - the gravity defying geniuses, airborne adventurers, titanic tumblers -the Amazing Acrobats!"
​​

​<applause>

Acrobats

The acrobats or tumblers are athletes and gymnasts who run, jump, spin and tumble across the ring.

Little equipment is required apart from costumes, optional springboard, athletic performers with a strong one to catch and support the others.

​A typical act builds a human pyramid by climbing and bouncing performers higher and higher - each one being held by the supporter beneath them.

The successful completion of each leap and catch is accompanied by an exaggerated wave of the arm which encourages the audience to applaud.

​The tumblers are a great way to get movement, energy and excitement into the evening's performance.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (2)

Acrobats and Tumblers Gifts >>

Solo acrobats are similar to the gymnastic floor performances you might see at the Olympics. Using props like rings and sashes, they create a balletic and athletic spectacle.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (3)

Acrobat Gifts >>

Animal Acts

The traditional circus relied heavily on trained animals for drawing in the crowds. ​From dogs and horses through to elephants, lions and tigers - show animals were a popular attraction.

Gradually people became concerned about animal welfare. There are no animals who naturally do tricks in the wild. To most people's relief the animal based circus act has largely disappeared.

An example of an old-time act is the seal balancing a ball. Clever, entertaining and as we eventually decided - the wrong way to treat animals.

The expression "What am I - a performing seal?" illustrates the tricks and hoops we often have to jump through as part of daily life.

(Video) Most Amazing Circus Act You've Ever Seen

Audience

Where would the circus be without an audience?

The performance and survival of the circus needs a crowd of good natured people - adults and children - to enjoy the magic and thrills of the entertainment.

Gasp at the high flyers, laugh with the clowns and enjoy the spectacle of art, skill and danger that the circus provides.

If a travelling circus is coming to your area and you have a little free cash try to book tickets. Share the experience with young children and friends. Your goodwill and generosity will help to support this marvellous tradition of real entertainment.

Bed of Nails

Some circus acts involve the mysteries of the unexplainable. Like the bed of nails which looks painful.

Does the showman enter a mystical state enabling him to ignore the pain of the nails?

Is there some trickery involving blunt nails and weight distribution?

Is he a fakir? No, he does it for real.

An email from an artist who performed this act assures me that the nails are sharp and hurt! Their other acts include walking on glass and a ladder of swords. That is a hard way to make a living.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (5)

Bed of Nails Gifts >>

Big Top

The Big Top is a name for the traditional tent used by the travelling circus.

They would rent a field from a farmer and build this huge tent where the circus is performed.

Inside the Big Top is the Circus Ring where the acts perform. This is a circle as its name suggests and the audience sit around it - with an area reserved for the acts to get ready and make their entrance.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (6)

(Video) 10 Circus Freaks That Actually Existed!

Circus Big Top Tent Gifts >>

Clowns

The clowns are the one of the most recognisable of circus acts.

A main part of the event they entertain the crowd while the arena is being prepared for other artists.

Although the clowns may put on a silly act they are hugely talented performers. Many of them can tumble, juggle and fire-eat and at least one will be able to ride a unicycle.

Some small children and large adults are scared of clowns. Now who on earth would be scared of a madman with a big red nose, ridiculous feet and odd-looking clothes?

A-Z List of Circus Acts (7)

Clown Face Gifts >>

Contortionist

A person with a strong flexible and supple body who is able to bend into a variety of painful looking positions.

Sometimes described as double-jointed but that may not be a real medical term.

The act can involve squeezing into small boxes, large bottles, balancing on tables and chairs. Acommon position is a complete back bend where the head of the contortionist ends up between their legs.

Some Yoga positions also require flexibility but they are more about achieving an inner peace and tranquility than the performance act of the circus or street contortionist.

Custard Pie

THE single best visual joke in the whole world ever is the custard pie gag.

Please don't think for a moment you just push the pie in someone's face. That is funny but it doesn't scratch the surface of selling the joke to the audience. The presentation of the gag, the anticipation, the timing and the delivery of the pie.

It is a high form of entertainment art -the ultimate in slapstick humor.

An experienced clown will hook the audience with what is coming. Here is the pie, there is the fall guy and wait while I set him up for the delivery. After much build up the pie is finally delivered to the face of the unsuspecting victim.

It must be a great feeling to make a tent full of kids roar with laughter and delicious delight.

A check on Wiki reveals that "non consensual pieing is a punishable offence". You have been warned.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (9)

Custard Pie Gifts >>

(Video) Best CIRCUS ACTS EVER On Got Talent! | Top Talent

Escapology

Or Escape Artists. Tie the performer up, lock him in a suitcase, a straitjacket, suspend upside down in water - a whole range of dangerous looking confinements for the escapologist to escape from.

For the most part there are tricks involved. An accomplice ties special knots which are easy to undo or there are false panels to escape through.

​Harry Houdini was the most famous escapologist of all.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (10)

Escapology Gifts >>

Fire Eating or Fire Breathing

Fire eating is a spectacular looking act. It appears far more dangerous than it actually is.

Otherwise there would be less fire-eaters.

They don't really eat the fire but mostly blow flames into the air. There are skills to learn and for children brought up NOT to play with matches - it is very exciting.

Fire-eating is definitely a "Do not try this at home" form of entertainment.If you need to get a similar experience eating a hot chilli might work.

Fire Breathers blow a plume of flames into the air. Fire Eaters extinguish the flames in their mouth.

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Fire Breathing Gifts >>

Freak Show

The freak show died out. Although for some performers it was their only way to earn a living - it became less acceptable to modern society.

If you were very tall, fat, thin, short or oddly hairy there was potentially an opening in the freak show for you. Possibly more scary than clowns for young people.

Elephant Man is a movie that shows how cruel this entertainment was. A sad, but somehow rewarding film.

Hand Balancing Act

The hand balancing act is one of those simple skills involving someone who spends the entire act upside down.

There is a variety of balance equipment they use - one example is where the artist adds wooden blocks to gradually raise themselves higher and higher.

It is difficult to stress the lack of danger involved but they do their best to increase the tension. A wobble here or there to give the impression of an act on the edge.

These performers have strong arms, a sense of balance, gymnastic skills and artistry.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (12)

(Video) Top 10 Cirque du Soleil Shows

Hand Balancing Gifts >>

Horses

Horses running round the ring while a rider stands up, turns round, jumps on and off. If you have ever ridden a horse or sat on a pony you will appreciate how hard that is to do.

Trick riding or equestrian arts is an old skill dating before the circus. Possibly created by the Cossacks who used it in warfare. Quite how they used it is a question for another time.

Extreme dressage could be another way of describing it.

​An expert circus or rodeo trick rider is pictured in the design.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (13)

Circus Rodeo Horse Riding Gifts >>

Human Cannonball

This act involves a man climbing into a cannon and being shot across the circus ring into a safety net.

He climbs in and waits patiently while the fuse is lit. There is a loud bang, lots of smoke and our hero is fired all the way across the stage - hopefully landing in the large net in the target area.

With the eyes of adults we might suspect this of being an act but to young children it is very real.

There he is! And still wearing his safety helmet which helps to hide his face.

One of the few acts where the performer always gets fired.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (14)

Human Cannonball Gifts >>

Juggling

Juggling is a skill you CAN try to learn at home where learning to juggle three balls is a real achievement.

Jugglers in the circus can do way more than that. ​Several balls at one time, clubs, hoops, burning sticks, knives - they juggle an extraordinary range of items.

Juggling is one of my favourite performance acts. It requires practice, hand-eye coordination and a fun accompanying patter to keep the crowd engaged.

A-Z List of Circus Acts (15)

Juggling Gifts >>

More Circus Acts!

Part 2 of this Circus tribute contains lots more acts from Knife Throwing to Unicycling - including Snake Charming, Trapeze and more.

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Circus Acts - Part 2 >>

FAQs

What are all the acts in the circus? ›

A circus is a company of performers who put on diverse entertainment shows that may include clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, dancers, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists, and unicyclists as well as other object manipulation and stunt-oriented artists.

Who is the most famous circus performer of all time? ›

1. Isaac Van Amburgh—“The Great Lion Tamer” From his humble origins as an assistant at a menagerie called the Zoological Institute of New York, the flamboyant Isaac Van Amburgh grew into the most famous lion tamer of the 19th century. His act was renowned for its extreme daring.

What are circus workers called? ›

Carny, also spelled carnie, is an informal term used in North America for a traveling carnival employee, and the language they use, particularly when the employee operates a game ("joint"), food stand ("grab", "popper" or "floss wagon"), or ride ("ride jock") at a carnival.

How much do circus performers make? ›

An early career Circus Performer with 1-4 years of experience earns an average total compensation (includes tips, bonus, and overtime pay) of $37,500 based on 6 salaries. A mid-career Circus Performer with 5-9 years of experience earns an average total compensation of $40,000 based on 7 salaries.

What is the most famous circus? ›

and Barnum & Bailey Circus, formerly Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, byname The Greatest Show on Earth, American circus that was the best-known traveling circus in the United States in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

What is a female ringmaster called? ›

A female circus leader is known as a ringmistress, and often wears a black skirt or leggings with knee-high black boots, and either the same style topcoat and tails as a ringmaster or a red blouse.

Who is the most famous trapeze artist? ›

Lillian Leitzel
Lillian Leitzel in 1931
BornLeopoldina Alitza Pelikan2 January 1892 Breslau, Germany)
Died15 February 1931 (aged 39) Copenhagen, Denmark
Known forTrapeze Acrobatics

What is Bello Nock real name? ›

Bello Nock was a born clown. Born Demetrius Alexandro Claudio Amadeus Bello Nock in Sarasota, Fla., he's a seventh-generation descendant of the family that founded Circus Nock in Switzerland in the 1700s.

Where do carnival workers sleep? ›

When the games and rides shut down, Woolston said, most workers sleep in retrofitted travel trailers known as bunkhouses. Woolston, though, has a room inside his game. “I'm the only one who has that, and I'm never late for work,” he said, laughing.

What are circus rings called? ›

Ring Curbs: The massive wooden rings now used by circuses. When the making of ring banks was discontinued by most shows, rings were made of rope, or canvas sections. These evolved into the sectional wooden circuses used today.

What do you call the end of a circus? ›

Blow Off: (1) The end of a circus performance. The period when patrons are exiting the tent. You may see midway attractions and vendors getting ready to "catch the blow-off".

Who was the clown for Barnum Bailey circus? ›

Chase (1886 – September 26, 1964), known professionally as Charlie Bell, was a circus performer for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus known for his work in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth.

What happened to the Barnum and Bailey animals? ›

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus plans to relaunch without animals. The circus shut down in 2017 under pressure from animal rights groups and shifts in audience tastes. The producers had removed the elephants from the show a year earlier and sent them to live on a sanctuary in Florida.

Where did trapeze originate? ›

The trapeze was invented in 1859 by a French performer named Jules Leotard. The word trapeze comes from the Latin word trapezium, a geometrical four-sided figure that is mimicked by the shape made by the ceiling, ropes, and bar in a trapeze.

Which is the oldest circus in the world? ›

The Royal Hanneford Circus is an American-based touring family circus. With origins dating back to 1690, it has been called the oldest circus in the world.

What circuses still exist? ›

There are still circuses in the US that operate today.

Some of these circuses include Loomis Bros Circus, Jordan World, Carden International, Royal Hanneford, and Carson & Barnes.

Does Cirque du Soleil pay well? ›

Average Total Cash Compensation

The base salary for Performers in companies like Cirque Du Soleil Inc range from $49,555 to $73,423 with the average base salary of $60,136.

How much do Cirque du Soleil acrobats get paid? ›

$87,642. The estimated total pay for a Acrobat at Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group is $87,642 per year.

How do circus performers live? ›

You live together, work together and eat together daily, you are never more than a few hundred feet away from your family. The show itself becomes a parent with everyone looking after the show kids. Kids learn good work ethics early on circuses, everyone has chores or duties that must be performed daily.

What is the biggest circus company? ›

Big Top Arena! GARDEN BROS CIRCUS has been entertaining families for over 100 years and now the Largest Circus on Earth.

Is there still a Ringling Brothers circus? ›

The "Greatest Show On Earth," which shut down its circus performances five years ago, will return in fall 2023 with acts sourced from around the world, new technology, and interactive elements to encourage audience participation, according to owners Feld Entertainment.

Who started the first circus? ›

Philip Astley (1742 – 1814), a six-foot tall, ex-cavalry man, is often credited as the 'father of the modern circus'. In 1768, he and his wife Patty established Astley's Riding School in London, where Philip would teach in the morning and perform equestrian tricks in the afternoon.

What do circus performers do? ›

Circus performers entertain with a wide variety of unusual acts that terrify, amuse, and amaze their audiences. Circus artists appear to defy death as they swing from a trapeze or walk a tightwire high above the ground. Some perform gymnastic feats on the ground, and clowns entertain with their absurd antics.

Do circuses still use animals 2022? ›

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced Wednesday its big top circus will resume touring five years after it was retired, and animals will no longer be part of the performance.

What animals are in a circus? ›

Elephants, lions, tigers, rhinoceros, zebras, chimpanzees, crocodiles, pythons, ostriches, dromedaries, bears, etc. A long list of animals subjected and converted into puppets for human entertainment.

Who is the leader of a circus? ›

A ringmaster or ringmistress, or sometimes a ringleader, is a significant performer in many circuses. Most often seen in traditional circuses, the ringmaster is a master of ceremonies that introduces the circus acts to the audience.

Can I run away and join the circus? ›

Technically it is possible to run away and join the circus, but you'll need to join as a rigger, usher, be a dish-hand or sell in the concession stand. Joining the acrobatic team will not be as easy. You'll need a high level of skill and the willingness to travel most of the year.

What is a circus tent called? ›

The large tent that housed numerous rings and stages became known as the “The Big Top”. This name stuck and became interchangeable with circus!

Do you need a degree to be in the circus? ›

There are no educational requirements for circus performers. Those who have a high school or college education, however, will have an advantage because they will be better able to manage their business affairs and communicate with others.

Does Ringling Brothers still use elephants? ›

The trunked giants had been the stars of Ringling's circus for over 100 years, often performing stunts throughout the show, before showrunners phased them out of the circus in 2016. Many of the elephants retired at a Florida wildlife sanctuary.

Are there any ringlings left? ›

Shuttered since 2017, Ringling Brothers will bring back its circus in 2023, but this time there will be no animal acts.

What states are circuses banned? ›

Six states ban the use of certain exotic or wild animals in traveling animal acts or circuses: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York.

Are there any circuses left in the US? ›

There are still circuses in the US that operate today.

Some of these circuses include Loomis Bros Circus, Jordan World, Carden International, Royal Hanneford, and Carson & Barnes.

Where are circuses banned? ›

Lebanon: Nationwide ban on the use of certain species in circuses. Mexico: General ban of wild animals. Panama: Nationwide ban prohibiting 'entry of wild animals for use in static and travelling circuses and similar shows'. Paraguay: General ban of wild animals.

Are circus animals treated well? ›

Circus Cruelty

Animals in circuses are often beaten, shocked, kicked, or cruelly confined in order to train them to be obedient and do tricks. With elephants, the abuse begins when they are babies to break their spirits. All four of the baby elephant's legs are chained or tied for up to 23 hours per day.

Why do circus masters wear red? ›

"The ringmaster's role in the circus is to roll out the red carpet, to make sure the audience is open and receptive to the acts that are coming," he explained.

What's another word for ringmaster? ›

emcee, master of ceremonies, host.

What does a ringmaster carry? ›

Ringmasters also traditionally carried whips that they could use to direct the animal acts in the circus. Other guests at your costume party might be uncomfortable with someone walking around flicking a whip, so carry a staff or walking stick for dramatic flourish instead.

Videos

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