Everyone's heard the old joke about running away and joining the circus. But what if your parents are the ones in the circus? And what if it doesn't stop there – with your uncles, aunts, grandparents and great grandparents also living the unique and eccentric life of circus performers?
Germaine Delbosq, now 34, had a chaotic childhood, never putting down roots or having consistent schooling, but at no point did she want a more normal one, she insists. "Maybe it's because I loved the artistic lifestyle. Maybe it's because I benefited from my family being available all the time. Or maybe it's just in the blood."
Germaine's circus family pedigree could barely be more prestigious. Together with her brother, she is the 12th generation of circus performers on her mother's side (her grandfather worked for both Blackpool Tower Circus and for the great Bertram Mills, while her grandmother was a ballet dancer), and seventh generation on her father's. Still today, her uncle, brother, sister-in-law, husband and now her own 13-year-old daughter are all performers, whilst Germaine's own act of foot juggling with fire on the back of a motorbike is as popular as ever.
The act, which she performs for Zippos Circus, is animated, exhilarating and dangerous (her fire cross once snapped and fell on her pregnant stomach, then near the motorbike's petrol tank). Yet Germaine is softly spoken and has an unexpected sereneness about her. She explains: "My earliest memory is in South Africa. I must have been about three years old. We lived on a train, stopping in different towns. I can remember running up and down the corridor each morning waking everyone up. I felt so excited, so alive. But then, as I got older, I became more introverted and something of a loner. I still am."
Attributing it partly to her natural character, she also acknowledges that on many of her childhood tours – which took place all over the world from New Zealand to Finland to Sicily – there were no other children present. "I had a brother, but he was seven years younger than me, so I was more like a second mother to him."
On the tours where there were children, Germaine enjoyed close friendships, but says it was always tough when you had to leave them at the end, often knowing you would never see them again. "The boundary between family and friends is blurred in circus life because you all live together. Yes, there are separate caravans, but they're just steps away, and you are like one big family for the duration of the tour. On one of my favourite tours, which took place in France, there were 12 children, so we had our own school with a proper teacher, as opposed to the usual home schooling we got – and that was particularly hard when we had to split up to go our separate ways."
Winters were more conventional. "Home was a house in France, so we'd live there for two or three months out of season and I'd go to school. I loved seeing the same friends there year after year and I welcomed their questions about my latest tour. I was never teased – far from it, they found my life glamorous." But the consistency and sameness of normal life never took long to bore Germaine and soon she'd yearn to get back on the road. "If ever I did get teased, which wasn't very often, it was when we were travelling. I guess some children just didn't know what to make of our lives, which must have seemed so different to theirs. But mostly, kids were just really excited about the circus coming to town."
Germaine, who speaks five languages fluently, was just six when she took her first steps into the ring to balance on a globe. "There was never an expectation. I certainly never felt forced. But I'd watched my dad do his juggling and my mum doing her trapeze act in awe, and even though I was painfully shy back then, that sheer magic of the lights shining on you and the adrenalin levels rising as you get ready to do something ultimately risky is unbeatable, and I joined in on my parents' act at any given opportunity. By the time I was nine, I was working on my own act and by 14, I was making my own costumes."
Because circus performers live outside so many of the bounds and rules of society and the children experience repeated losses, some child psychologists have argued that it equates to inherent disregard for children. But Germaine disagrees. "It was a magical childhood. My family, so many of them, were there all the time, not just the odd weekend."
Indeed, Germaine would be sitting there eating her lunch and her mother would be there putting on her make-up for the show, while her uncle and grandfather prepared for their clown act. They certainly never had babysitters. "You went with your parents and did what they were doing and if they were performing in the evening, they just made sure you were tucked up in bed first."
The bubble was to burst, however, when Germaine hit 15. "My parents split up and I stayed with my mum. Obviously, it was upsetting, but it was amicable – it had to be for the tours they still did together. And anyway, you grow up quickly in the circus, so I was more focused on my life by then, in particular improving my act."
As her parents continued to age, the performances inevitably became harder, says Germaine. "Circus performing is very physical work, so you can't carry on forever. It's like football in that way. But my parents adapted. My mum is manager of catering at the circus now, while my dad hires out the tents."
At 20, Germaine met her husband, an Argentinian tango dancer. "He was the first of his family to join the circus, so he had a very different background to mine. But he adored circus life and we have had a happy, fulfilled life performing. We are well paid, we have our family around us and we still go to amazing countries, as well as appearing on cruise ships and in hotels in places like Dubai, and even on TV shows. Our daughter Corinna, now 13, feels the same way, regularly appearing with my husband dancing and I often catch her practising juggling with her feet in the hope that she will do my act one day."
Germaine is proud of her, although she worries for her future. "With the opening up of Eastern Europe, where there are some incredibly talented circus performers, the industry is so much more competitive now. But in Corinna's favour is that she's naturally more sociable than me, as well as taking things in her stride more."
Sometimes, there are months on end when Germaine doesn't see her daughter at all. "There are times she chooses to join her grandmother or her aunty on a different tour and of course I miss her and worry about her. In a vehicle, you are never safe, and there is so much travelling in circus life. At least, if I am with her, I feel I can protect her. But I can't close her up in a cage. There is a unique sense of freedom about the circus and I have chosen to bring her up in that environment. It would be unfair to take that freedom away from her now."
Zippos Circus is currently on tour with their family friendly show GOLD, hosted by Ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE. Tickets from 0871 210 2100 or zipposcircus.co.ukReuse content