What is a Circus?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Circuses are a form of entertainment that includes something for just about everyone. As a traveling unit of clowns, acrobats, animal acts and a range of other performers, the circus enjoys a history that goes back to the heyday of the Roman Empire. Generally, the focus of the performing area is referred to as a ring, owning to the circular nature of the space. Because circuses are traveling companies, tents are used for much of the live performances and housing for the animals and props, while the performers and other circus workers tend to live in trailers and wagons.

One ring of a circus might feature animals, such as elephants.
One ring of a circus might feature animals, such as elephants.

The very nature of a circus is to provide a source of fun and entertainment as the company travels form one location to the next. In modern times, the 19th century through the early 20th century were considered to be a golden age for this type of traveling show. Mergers of smaller circuses created some of the giants that are still considered to have set the standard for a quality circus. Even today, many people still recognize the names of Barnum and Bailey, as well as the Ringling Brothers with the concept of a really good circus.

Clowns are part of a circus.
Clowns are part of a circus.

One of the innovations that helped to popularize the modern circus is the concept of multiple performing areas. Often, a large circus will provide up to three performing areas that are dedicated to different types of acts. This three ring circus standard was often used as a means of building up excitement among the populace as the circus made it’s way to the next town.

The classic setting for a circus is under a brightly colored tent.
The classic setting for a circus is under a brightly colored tent.

One ring may feature animal acts, such as elephant and tiger acts. The elephants and tigers are permanent features and are often treated with the greatest of care. A second ring will focus on acts of daring and skill, such as trapeze and high wire performers. The third ring will be all about wacky fun, often supplied by a featured clown that is supported by a host of other clowns. It is not uncommon for the performers that are featured in one ring to also appear as part of the act in other rings.

Many permanent workers and performers with the modern circus choose to vacation during the winter months of the year. There is a large colony of carnival works, known as carnies, in the Sarasota Florida area. Sarasota is also home to the Ringling Brothers Museum, which features exhibits of the glory days of the circus along with periodic performances by circus performers.

Acrobatic and tumbling performers can often be seen at the circus.
Acrobatic and tumbling performers can often be seen at the circus.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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I went to Vegas and saw a Cirque du Soleil performance and I could not believe the talent that was whipped around before me. It seemed there was nothing those performers could not do.

However, I will have to suggest that anyone who travels to Vegas and catch a show, to remember the time change that will occur; meaning your 10:00 show could be quite a bit later if you are traveling from the east coast. This is what happened to me, and even with all of the excitement going on in front of me I was still dozing off.

The other reason, besides the amazing acrobatics that I love about Cirque du Soleil is that they do not use animals. Animals were so much fun to see at circuses and zoos as a kid but now that I am an adult I wonder if it is truly worth it to have these animals in such situations is worth the childly wonder.


The Ringling Brothers circus came to a city close to our small school every May. It was a tradition that the 5th grade class always attended the circus.

Since my brothers had been to the circus before me and told me about everything I would see, I couldn't wait. There is nothing like seeing these daring acts in person and I wasn't disappointed.

I was completely fascinated with the lady on the flying trapeze. I would watch her, holding my breath, until she was safely down on the ground.

Even the clowns were entertaining and fun to watch. There were some kids in my class who weren't too excited about the clowns, but I loved them. As a kid they were fascinating and helped make the time between the acts go quickly.


I have many fond memories of attending the circus when I was growing up. Every year there was a traveling circus who came to our town. At first they just had one big ring where all the circus acts were performed.

As the years went by, they changed it to a small three ring circus. The only thing I don't like about a three ring circus, is how much harder it is to watch every act.

I was enthralled with all of it, and didn't want to miss any of it. My siblings and I were always so excited when the circus came to our town. Each of us was given a little extra money to spend on some food or a small souvenir.

Just the sights, sounds and even the smells from the animals created memories that I have not forgotten. I think the elephants were my favorite animals to watch. Even though I enjoyed watching them, I still felt kind of sorry for them and wondered what kind of life the circus was for them.


I have a friend who was a member of a traveling circus for almost 10 years. They were about as far away from Ringling brothers as its possible to get.

The whole cast and crew was only 30 people and most of them worked as both performers and support staff. My friend did a show of horse tricks and then also trained and cared for the horses. He also sold cotton candy, put up the tent, cleaned up vomit and occasionally ran around as a clown. They would travel from city to city in vans and RVs and performing everything from parks to backyards to parking lots. It was a real renaissance circus, just put on a show with whatever means you have.

I really like this idea of the circus. It is not about big tents or lions or trapeze, it is about performance and entertainment. A creative group of people can do something spectacular with a small circus.


@lonelygod - I completely understand your love of the more risky circus acts. I loved watching those who tamed lions and the girls on horseback who would do crazy stunts while circling the center ring.

I am really sad that more circuses don't have animals these days. I think that if they treated the animals well enough, life as a performing animal wouldn't be too bad.

One of my best photographs comes from a circus that still had animals. For $10 we were allowed to pet a lion and get a photo taken with it. That is just something you can't do very often. I also have a fantastic shot of myself riding an elephant. Great memories that I am afraid more children won't be able to have.


When I was young one of the events I anticipated most was the circus coming to town. My small hometown wasn't very interesting, so between the time the circus rolled into town and the fair set up shop, we were really hurting for entertainment.

My favorite event under the big top was when the trapeze artists would perform. I loved watching them swing through the air and make death defying jumps across the sky. I remember more then a few times when I thought there was no way the trapeze artist was going to make it.

Speaking of dangerous acts, I also got a thrill out of the fire eaters and sword jugglers. I guess it was just nice to see something a bit risky.


My most vivid childhood memory is of the circus, in particular the clowns. I totally hated them and this triggered off a phobia which I have to this day.

I think I was about three or four when we went to the circus as part of my sister's birthday treat. My mother tells me I was fine for the first half of their show, though I have no memory of that.

All that sticks in my mind is this evil looking thing, with that panstick make up and oversized mouth, reaching into the crowds to pluck me from my family.(He was actually taking volunteers to the stage, and my mom had thought I'd enjoy that.)

Recently I joined a support group for people who have similar fears. This condition is unofficially known as coulrophobia and there are more of us than you'd imagine.

I'm much better at dealing with clowns these days, but I doubt I could ever set foot in a circus again.


@browncoat - I know exactly what you mean as I saw a similar show when I was in Beijing last year.

They are extremely skilled, especially for their age, and seeing one of these shows is pretty much standard when you visit China. I was reluctant at first, as some guidebooks suggest the youngsters have a very tough life with all that training.

When I did some more research I found that they do take it all very seriously, but it's acknowledged as a great talent and there is prestige to be had from performing in this way.


@Penzance356 - I was brought up with regular circus visits too. The whole thing seemed very romantic to me. Living in caravans, and having freedom to perform and entertain at will.

I am now a major fan of the modern circus, especially the Cirque du Soleil shows. They retain all the elements of the traditional style, except for the animals of course.

You do have to choose the show carefully if you are taking children along though. Some are not as entertaining for them I think.


As a child I was completely obsessed with the circus. The highlight of the year was our annual road trip to see my maternal grandparents, because it was during this vacation that the circus came to town.

I loved it all, from the red coated ring master to the candies and treats I was allowed to buy freely. My absolute favorite thing though was the trapeze act.

One year my mother paid extra for front row seats, but I cried most of the way through because it hurt my neck to look up at the roof!

I never did realize my dream to join the troupe and marry the lion tamer! I do still enjoy the circus sometimes though, albeit the modern version.


One of the most amazing things I ever saw was at a circus. It was a pair of Chinese acrobats. They were only young girls, maybe seven or eight years old, or maybe they were older, but looked a lot younger. They performed tricks I wouldn't have believed the human body was capable of! Balancing themselves on one hand, twisting themselves into knots... it was amazing.

I was there with a friend who had studied human anatomy and he was shocked at what they could do. If you even get a chance to see some world class acrobats, you should definitely not pass up the opportunity!


@irontoenail - I know when the circus came to visit my neighborhood recently there were protests because they used animals in their acts.

I think all they used was horses and dogs, though, which I thought was kind of ridiculous to protest.

As long as the animals were being kept within animal welfare standards, keeping a dog is not at all the same as keeping an elephant.

Dogs, and horses too, have been bred to enjoy human company. Whether they get to do a few tricks every day in front of a crowd, or in a living room surely doesn't make all that much difference.

But, then I guess it might be hard to tell whether they are being kept properly or not.


I'm glad that modern circuses have started to make a move towards not using animals in performances. There are quite a few that don't use any animals at all, in fact.

Elephants, in particular often suffered quite a lot when traveling with a circus. Even if they weren't beaten in training (and a lot of them were), they were often desperately lonely, malnourished, and prevented from doing the things that they would do in the wild, like bathe in mud, or walk for miles.

I'm glad that most people realize now that there is no need to exploit animals in order to enjoy shows like this. What with acrobats and dare devils and so forth, there is more than enough to see.

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