how to improve your circus skills

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The Independent Culture
Previous contact between my body and circus equipment has been less than successful. After six years of sporadic attempts, I can barely keep two juggling balls in my hands, let alone three in the air. The trapeze was a monumental disaster. Not only did I suffer from unusually slippery palms, but my pathetic upper arm and stomach muscles refused to hoist me up on to the bar. I received marginal joy from fire breathing, though my inability to spit paraffin at long distances contributed to less than spectacular displays.

But, like most people who harbour secret dreams of running away to join a circus, I am a glutton for punishment. On a scorching June day, I paid a visit to Peter Court, a performer, director and workshop leader. Given my track record, and the heat, we decided to concentrate on more gentle skills.

Circus skills fall into three basic categories: equilibrium, vaulting and juggling. Each category can be further divided. For example, there are inverted equilibriums like handstands, stacking equilibriums like stilt walking and human columns and rigged equilibriums like the aerial cradle, tightrope and static trapeze. When we think of juggling, we mainly conjure images of tossing and passing objects, though the ancient art of contact juggling is now making a comeback. Peter and I spent the morning practising gyroscopic juggling, also referred to as "object manipulation". In this family, we find skills such as baton twirling, knife throwing, rope spinning and devil sticks.

We began with plate spinning, which looked pretty easy to master. The plastic plates were specially designed for the task, with thick rims around the bottom and conical-shaped indentations in the middle. Once moving fast enough, the plate should centre itself and begin revolving while you do nothing more than hold the stick still. Simple. Except that my plate never seemed to go fast enough. As soon as I stopped wiggling my stick, the plate would fly off and hit the dog.

Peter then told me how I could progress to real china. Without giving away tricks of the trade, I can reveal that it involves a pin and gaffer tape. Not that there's much chance of me whipping out the Wedgwood for a party trick.

And so we moved on to the diabolo, which is a large oriental yo-yo shaped like an hourglass. You hold two foot-long sticks parallel to each other and the ground in either hand, and the diabolo whizzes around on a piece of string which links the two sticks. To increase the velocity of the diabolo's spins, you whip one hand up and down, while maintaining its balance on the string by constantly repositioning your body and the sticks.

I could actually manage this. But like conventional yo-yos, it's not enough to get the thing to go up and down. People expect you to do tricks with it. Peter showed me how to "rock the cradle" and "go round the world with a flick". This resulted in more mild concussion for his dog.

As a last resort, Peter produced his "flower sticks". This time I was to use two sticks (made of rubber) to manipulate a third. The stick is tossed rhythmically from side to side, resting for a brief moment at an improbable angle on the stick which catches it. From there, one can progress to throwing it in the air, making it perform elaborate twists before landing for a second on the other stick and being hurled upwards again.

Finally, after years of trawling the entire circus-performer repertoire, I discovered a skill I could call my own. I could actually manage the flower stick. This was no doubt a tremendous relief for Peter's dog.


Peter Court, Exeter (01395 269534), can be booked for workshops; The Circus Space, Hackney, London N1 (0171 613 4141); Circomedia, Bristol (0117 963 2839); Skylight, Circus Arts Training Education Performance, Rochdale (01706 713638); Norwich Circus Centre (01603 613445 ); Greentop Community Circus Centre, Sheffield (0114 2560962)