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What Do Circus Performers Do?

By Susan Abe
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The term circus performers can encompass an enormously diverse group of performance artists, who can be broadly divided into musicians, animal trainers, athletes and clowns, who provide entertainment to circus audiences. Many circus performers work in more than one role, depending upon their skills, the size of the circus and the specific acts performed. Job preparation for most of these careers consists of luck in hiring, on-the-job training and experience in related skills, such as an eventual acrobat studying gymnastics as a teen. While most circuses take an extended winter break in a warm climate, performers must work daily to maintain their skills or continue to train the animals with which they work. Thus, in addition to frequent travel during the circus season, circus performers also perform the core job responsibilities of their type of performance art for every single show, sometimes more than once a day.

The orchestra musicians are often the overlooked circus performers. During the show, the orchestra plays music to accompany many of the other performing acts, including drum rolls to indicate suspense when a seemingly particularly risky performance is taking place. Their interim music not only helps to pass the time for the audience, but also provides cues to upcoming circus performers as to the time of their upcoming appearances. Most importantly, a specific song played by the orchestra is circus code for an emergency and the need to help evacuate the venue of animals, performers and the audience. This group of performers might work for the entire duration of each show as opposed to limited appearances by other performers.

Circus performers who are often the most visible and exciting to the audience include trainers and their animal partners. Some animal trainers not only perform athletic or acrobatic physical feats, but also integrate trained animals into their acts. This group includes lion tamers, elephant riders and trick horseback riders. Animal trainers not only perform in front of an audience, but they must also design their acts and then spend hours training their animal partners and practicing the new routines until they are ready for live performances.

Athletic circus performers include the acrobats, contortionists and trapeze artists. These performers design their acts and then practice year-round to achieve and maintain the physical conditioning necessary to successfully perform their daring feats. Many acrobats are groups of families where children are groomed at a young age to develop their physical skills.

Clowns are among the most recognizable circus performers and many have completed "clown colleges" sponsored by famous circuses. These performers must be experienced in the application of make-up and the performance of stunts to avoid physical injuries. Clowns often perform their skits while other performers prepare or remove their performance sets.

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