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Circus historian George Chindahl has identified as many as 200 different circus acts, and new ones are being created every day. Some circus performers work alone, although most work as part of a troupe. Every performer, whether solo or a group, develops a unique act. The aim is to amaze, entertain, and thrill the audience with their performances, which often feature risky, even death-defying, stunts. A great deal of a performance is the suspense created until the performer is once again safe on the ground. When not performing, the performers and their apprentices and other helpers maintain their equipment, oversee the set-up of the equipment, maintain their costumes and other props used during performances, and train and rehearse their routines.
At the beginning of the circus show, all the performers join in the circus parade around the arena. Performers wait backstage during the show until it is time for them to perform. They usually wait near the entrances, so that they are ready to go on as soon as they are called. Circus shows may feature 20 or more separate acts, and each performance and the entire show are precisely timed.
Aerialists perform vaulting, leaping, and flying acts, such as trapeze, rings, and cloud swings. Balancing acts include wire walkers and acrobats. Jugglers handle a variety of objects, such as clubs, balls, or hoops, and they perform on the ground or on a high wire. Aquatic performers perform water stunts, usually only in very large circuses. Animal trainers work with lions, tigers, bears, elephants, or horses. These performers almost always own and care for the animals they work with. Clowns dress in outlandish costumes, paint their faces, and use a variety of performance skills to entertain audiences. Circus musicians and conductors play in bands, called windjammers, which provide dramatic and comedic accompaniment for all acts. Each act has its own music, and the windjammers cue each act as it begins with its music. Other common circus entertainers are daredevil performers and trick bicyclists.
Most circuses have several circus performers working at once in different rings (areas where circus workers perform). These simultaneous performances are usually introduced by an announcer, known as the ringmaster, who calls the audience’s attention to one or more rings. Although most circuses at one time were held in outdoor tents, known as big tops, most today are held in large indoor arenas.
Almost all circus performers combine several skills and may participate in more than one act during a show. All circus acts are physically demanding, requiring strength, endurance, and flexibility.
Circus work is seasonal. Performers work during the spring, summer, and fall, giving perhaps two or three shows a day on weekends and holidays. Some circuses, such as Ringling Brothers, perform from February to early December. During the winter months, they train, improve their acts, or work in sponsored indoor circuses. Circus performers sometimes take jobs on stage while not in season. Many circus performers develop variety acts that they can perform in places like Las Vegas or on cruise ships.
Circus performers can spend up to 10 years in training. Once they have developed their act, they may join a circus for one or several seasons, or they may travel from circus to circus as independent acts. In either case, there is a great deal of travel involved.