Whip crack a day: There's more to circus skills than big boots and red noses. Emma Cook goes to north London to learn the essential art of cattle control

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Clowning about is a serious business these days. Or so says Charlie Holland, production director and founder of The Circus Space, Britain's only circus school. 'It used to be very cliched: all popcorn, candyfloss and tight spangly leotards.' But alternative acts like Archaos and Cirque Du Soleil have raised it to the level of an art form.

Circus skills are low down on the government funding list. Whereas the French invest pounds 1.5 million annually in training, Britain donates less than pounds 50,000. When Holland decided that he wanted to be a juggler 13 years ago he discovered that there was nobody to teach him and nowhere to practise. To fill the gap, he and a group of fellow performers set up their own school in a derelict north London warehouse offering courses in every aspect of circus performance: tumbling, flying trapeze, club- swinging, clowning and unicycling. Now they teach more than 300 people a week. Holland's aim is to establish professional qualifications. 'They exist in music, drama and sport. Why not in this area, too?'.

Entering my class for a day, entitled 'Whip cracking, lasso and knife throwing', it's easy to see why not. Our teacher, a diminutive figure with long flowing hair and a pointed beard, introduces himself in a strong Yorkshire accent. He is 'Buffalo' Billy Wild who, as well as teaching, is still a professional stage cowboy performing the 'recreational skills of lads in the Wild West.' He gives us each a lasso rope and pages of background history. Lasso and whips were apparently essential for cowboys at stampedes and rodeos to round up cattle. In England they serve no practical purpose and are used almost exclusively in cabaret and stage acts. His handout also advises on looking after equipment; to keep your whip in good order, rub neat's-foot oil into the leather and wipe with a clean dry cloth.

Wild then shows the class a perfect rope spin. We watch silently as he creates a loop in the air and spins it higher and higher in a perfect circle above his head. It looks so simple, but throwing the rope sideways with the left hand and keeping it airborne with the right is an impossibility. I concentrate on making my loop smaller and frantically try to spin it faster, but it still falls limply to the floor. 'Okay, let's move on to the whip work,' shouts Wild. Relieved, I drop my rope and pick up a solid looking six-foot knotted bull whip. This looks more straightforward. Wild tells us to bend our arms back so the whip hangs behind us and flick the wrist forward swiftly. A man next to me grins as he hurls the length of coiled leather above his head, producing an ear-piercing bang. The crack, louder than a firework, occurs when the speed of the whip breaks the sound barrier.

The next cowboy trick is whip cutting. As part of the performance I am chosen as a willing assistant. Standing five feet away I clutch a small piece of paper in both hands. Wild lurches forward, slicing through it in one neat lash. I am asked to stand against a splintered door so he can show the class how to knife throw. A blade flies past my left ear. 'Don't worry. They're at least a foot away,' he shouts. Trying it out afterwards I discover the knives are comfortingly blunt.

After the demonstrations, Wild encourages us to practise on our own. Judging by the standard, the majority of us are beginners. 'We usually get hippy types on this course,' he observes, 'but this lot seem a lot straighter'. Two computer programmers stand in the corner, perfecting their knife throwing action. Meanwhile, Pete, a chef in a West End restaurant, smiles: 'I just want to get even with the other cooks in the kitchen.'

Details of The Circus Space's weekly workshops from United House, North Rd, London, N7 (071-700 3515)