You're never too old to learn. Rupert Isaacson on a school where they can teach you to fly, tumble and juggle. Sequins are not included
You no longer have to run away to the circus to learn the skills of the big top. If you ever used to dream about flying on a trapeze, performing acrobatics and tumbling - all great excuses to wear a leotard - there are now several schools around the country that will teach you these skills, even to vocational diploma level.

The largest UK circus school is in London's Hoxton, where Islington meets the East End. The Circus Space offers trapeze and tumbling both as intensive or drop-in courses. There are also regular classes in balance (tightrope walking to laymen like us), juggling, diabolo (dancing a ball along two sticks held in the air), stilt-walking, fire-eating, riding a unicycle, knife-throwing (more leotards!), whip-cracking and lasso (cowboy hats!) and, of course, clowning.

Yes, every week young professionals, older professionals, city types, the unemployed and any number of others - even freelance journalists - gather to don tight clothes (without sequins) and throw knives at boards, fall off tightropes and scare themselves silly on the trapeze. It does come as something of a shock when you find out how difficult it is to master even the basics of these skills. But it's fascinating to think that somewhere in the tower blocks of the City are budding tightrope walkers and trapeze artists.

However, all flippancy goes out the window when the classes begin, especially those involving the more physical skills. If you don't concentrate fully you can get hurt. The classes are completely absorbing, and the experience of being told what to do - hands here, legs here, balance like that - is surprisingly relaxing if you are one of those people who spends much of the day having to make decisions. Giving up control and just concentrating hard on something wholly physical - but more creative and challenging than merely going to a gym - is very fulfilling. The closest comparison that springs to mind is the discipline of the martial arts, but without any of the rivalry or latent aggression of that world.

Now blessed with Arts Council funding, the Circus Space has grown from quite modest beginnings to its present size, with 12 full-time teachers in the various disciplines, all offering casual classes, workshops, structured courses and practice space for regular performers. You can pay for classes by the day or book in for a term.

Although you don't need to be particularly fit to start learning some of the more static circus disciplines, you will need to achieve quite a high level of fitness if you want to take trapeze work or tumbling to any advanced level - the same as a dancer, say. Those already in shape and who have a good sense of balance - skiers and horse riders, for example - have an advantage.

If you do get really good and decide to take trapeze, tumbling, tightrope or any of the other skills to a higher level, the Circus Space's instructors can help you navigate the tricky business of setting up your own equipment. Free-standing rigs of tight wire equipment are becoming available, but it is best to set up your own rig, with your teacher's help, using a solid metal A-frame with pedestals welded to order and specialist non-rotating wire, all made up by an industrial workshop; this will be safe. The right shoes are also vital. Freeds, a company making dance and ballet shoes, produces a shoe called the Spartacus, whose suede soles and leather uppers offer both protection and sensitivity. Remember to wear good thick material on the legs, so you don't skin yourself when you fall.

Trapeze rigs are much trickier. You can get a single bar and rope made up to your specification, plus a set of swivels and other accessories. You can easily spend pounds 1,000 and more for a really safe high rig with specialist web ropes, a lunge belt to catch you when you fall and gymnastic safety mats at least 10ft by 5ft. However, if you get to the point where you need this kind of equipment, the Circus Space can hire it to you. Of course, during the classes all equipment is included in the tuition fee; all you'll need is dance clothes and a good, light pair of trainers with ankle support.

London is not the only city with large circus schools: the Arts Council also funds CircoMedia in Bristol (0117-947 7288) and the Greentop Community Circus Centre in Sheffield (0114-256 0962).

Fact file

The Circus Space

Coronet Street

Hoxton

London N1 6HD

Tel: 0171-613 4141, Fax: 0171-729 9422

Season: Year round.

Children: Workshops can be organised for children as young as three or four years old, but most classes are for 16-year-olds and over.

Disabled: Courses can be tailored to the physically and mentally handicapped. Wheelchair access and an adapted toilet are provided.

Safety: Staff are trained in first aid.

Insurance: Clients are covered by public liability, but should take out their own personal accident policies.

Tariffs: Most courses are in four-person, hour-long evening sessions at pounds 10 per person. Two-day courses cost pounds 25 to pounds 75. Prices for diploma courses on application.

Booking: By arrangement - some courses are 'drop in'. Access: Old Street underground or British Rail station, or buses 5, 43, 67, 76, 141, 172 or 505 - ask the conductor to set you down at Hoxton.

Comments