42 Circus Facts for 42FT

Trivia time! We’ve got your circus celebs, juggle jargon and historical info right here. In honor of Cirque Mechanics’ 42FT, we present you with 42 fun circus facts!

  • The word “circus” comes from the Latin for circle or ring. Large public entertainment events, like chariot races, would take place at Rome’s Circus Maximus, which could fit an audience of over 150,000 Romans!
  • The word “circus” comes from the Latin for circle or ring. Large public entertainment events, like chariot races, would take place at Rome’s Circus Maximus, which could fit an audience of over 150,000 Romans!
Circus Maximus in Rome
The Circus Maximus in Rome
  • A traditional circus is a traveling company of acrobats and performers, including trained animals and clowns.
  • Nouveau Cirque combines art forms like juggling, trapeze, acting and music without a ringleader, animals or “big top” tent.
  • Balancing and airborne acts often require three performers: a flyer who performs skills mid-air, a second performer acting as a base to lift or catch the flyer and a third—a spotter—to assist and safeguard the flyer.
  • Performers let us know their acts are done with their own signature style—maybe a wink, a hand gesture or a “Ta-dah!”
  • Clowning is highly physical theater, often without words, that draws on the traditions of Commedia dell’Arte and pantomime.
Commedia dell'Arte
A scene from Commedia dell’Arte
  • Australia has only one full-time circus school: The Flying Fruit Fly Circus! They don’t actually train bugs, though.
  • Charlie Chaplin, one of the most influential clowns and comedians, once entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest and came in third!
  • Cigar boxes are still a popular juggling prop today, used for high-speed mid-air box exchanges, balancing and other tricks. Keep an eye out for this act in 42FT!
  • Legendary screen star Cary Grant started his performance career working as an acrobat and juggler.
  • Contortionism is a circus genre in which a performer displays unusually flexible muscles and mobile joints.
  • Slackwire is the art of walking on a flexible, loose wire connected between two points, usually at a great height.
  • Alongside circus traditions, performers have developed many circus superstitions. For instance, both whistling backstage and entering the ring with your left foot are both considered bad luck.
  • The simplest form of juggling using three objects is called a three ball cascade. Give it a try!
  • Sousa’s famous march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” was traditionally played to quickly signal an emergency to all circus personnel.
  • And another circus superstition: Bringing a peacock feather into the circus tent is said to be bad luck.
  • For good luck, some circus performers keep a hair from an elephant’s tail in their pockets. The real question, then, is what kind of hair do elephant’s keep in their pockets?
  • Once a performer’s wardrobe trunk is set down backstage, it’s considered bad luck to move it before the circus relocates.
  • In circus lingo, a strolling vendor who sells concession items like popcorn and toys to the audience is called a “butcher.”
  • The Oscar-winning 1952 circus epic, The Greatest Show on Earth, was the first film that Steven Spielberg ever saw in a theater.
  • A free ticket is sometimes called an Annie Oakley—the small hole punched in the ticket resembles sharpshooter Oakley’s bullet holes, and Oakley is rumored to have given bullet-perforated playing cards to kids to use as free passes!
Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley
  • Did you know that human cannonballs travel between 60 and 70 miles an hour when they’re shot? Flying through the air that fast is like driving down the highway without a windshield.
  • Did you know that popcorn, a popular circus and theater snack, has been around since 400 BC?
  • In keeping with yet another circus superstition, performers never eat peanuts backstage.
  • John Bill Ricketts presented the first circus in America on April 3, 1793, in Philadelphia. President George Washington attended!
  • The modern circus—equestrian acts, clowning and feats of strength and agility—was created by Philip Astley in 1770 in England.
  • Italian equestrian Giuseppe Chiarini led the most well-traveled early circus, visiting fifteen countries on five continents during the late 19th century.
Guiseppe Chiarini’s act in Japan (1886)
  • The curtain separating the ring from the backstage of the circus is called the vorgang.
  • Barnum, a musical written about P.T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, premiered on Broadway in 1980 in the St. James Theatre, just two blocks away from the New Victory!
  • After living in the London Zoo for sixteen years, Jumbo the Elephant was sold to P.T. Barnum and came to the U.S. in 1882. Jumbo inspired “Jumbomania,” and jumbo soon became a synonym for large.
  • Did you know that circus is over 2,000 years old? Chinese circus dates back to the Qin Dynasty of 225–207 BC.
  • “Happy Cooks” is a traditional Chinese circus act that involves plate spinning and juggling food or kitchen utensils.
  • In 1971, the first week of August was designated National Clown Week by President Richard Nixon.
  • There are three types of clowns: Whiteface (the oldest), Auguste (zany and dim) and the Character Clown (Happy Hobo or Sad Tramp).
  • Social Circus programs attempt to engage marginalized kids in the circus arts, utilizing skill- and ensemble-building as tools for empowerment.
  • Before graduating to long, pointy weaponry, Sword Swallowers practice their craft with spoons, plastic tubes, knitting needles and wire coat hangers.
  • Most contortionists are either frontbenders or backbenders, depending on which direction their spines are more flexible in.
  • Enterology is the practice of squeezing one’s body into a very small box or container.
  • The only full-time, permanent sideshow left in the world is the Coney Island Circus Sideshow right here in New York City.
  • Is that clown car a regular two-door coupe? No. Circuses hollow out the insides of small cars to create as much space as possible, and then they pile in as many clowns and large props as possible.
  • A rola bola, or bongo board, is a flat piece of wood balanced on a wooden cylinder. Circus performers balance on one (or many stacked) bola boards for all sorts of acts, from juggling to acrobatics. Make your own!
  • The world record for the most balls juggled is held by Alex Barron for completing twenty-five cascades of eleven juggling balls at once!

Comment Leave a comment

  1. My son likes to see jugglers and I always see him trying to perform that. I like how you said that the simplest form of juggling is called a three-ball cascade. Thanks for sharing this article, it would be nice to find a circus show where I could take my whole family.

  2. That is not the best or most accurate definition of social circus. Social circus is about building social and emotional skills through the vehicle of circus with restorative justice and community at the core of practice. If you’d like a better or more in depth understanding of social circus I would be happy to provide this as a facilitator and teacher of social circus. But to limit social circus to and “attempt” or to say that it only serves “marginalized” students would be inaccurate. It largely serves underrepresented youth but the point is to unite communities through performance, it is not the act of finding under served youth and teaching them to be better people. It is about empowerment but I feel as though your description of social circus is not all encompassing and limiting. If you are going to link social circus, use a reputable site like ACE or AYCO. Or link social circuses across the globe, they serve as the best representation for what social circus really is.

    –Hannah Fishkin
    Program Coordinator
    CircEsteem (Chicago’s Youth Circus)

    • Hello Hannah, thank you so much for providing important context about social circus. This blog post was designed to give fun and quick bullet points about various circus facts, with links for further learning. Our condensed description certainly cannot convey the depth and nuance which you detail so wonderfully. We have passed your comment along to our Artistic Programming and Communications teams, so we can continue to learn and consider the full scope of social circus for future posts.