What is an Acrobat?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

An acrobat is an athlete who combines flexibility with strength and grace to create a unique form of physical performance. Using elements of gymnastics, dance, and contortionism, an acrobat uses his or her body as a medium of performance. Acrobats have been popular entertainers around the world for centuries, and can often be seen in circus or dance performances.

Tightrope walking is considered a form of acrobatics.
Tightrope walking is considered a form of acrobatics.

The history of the acrobat dates back to the earliest forms of public entertainment; archeological finds in China and the Mediterranean have turned up drawings, etchings, and carvings of acrobats that date back more than 2000 years. This early evidence shows humans performing great feats of agility, balance, and strength similar to stunts acrobats still perform today. During the middle ages in Europe, acrobatic feats were often part of the standard repertoire of court jesters, who served as entertainers to monarchs and powerful aristocrats.

Acrobats use elements of gymnastics.
Acrobats use elements of gymnastics.

Today, an acrobat may find employment with a circus or other public performance group. Large circus performance companies may hire dozens of acrobats for a single show, and may have multiple shows operating around the world at once. For acrobats who join mobile companies, travel may be a frequent part of the job and can provide many opportunities to see the world. Some acrobat groups may also chose to participate in large scale competitions for prize money and prestige.

Acrobats might perform as part of a dance troupe.
Acrobats might perform as part of a dance troupe.

There are many different kinds of acrobats, each with a particular skill set and rigorous training routine. Jugglers, trapeze artists, contortionists, gymnasts, and tightrope walkers are all considered types of acrobats. Some work with animals, performing feats of balance and gymnastic stunts on top of moving horses, bulls, or elephants. One interesting acrobatic game is the Spanish practice of castell, where dozens of acrobats work together to form a human tower more than ten levels high.

Gymnastics builds strength, endurance, flexibility, power and speed.
Gymnastics builds strength, endurance, flexibility, power and speed.

Many acrobats receive some formal training in gymnastics and dance, but some also learn their profession through an apprentice system. Since an acrobat can tailor his or her abilities to perform many different types of jobs, skills are often taught to novice acrobats by other, more experienced performers in order to enhance an act or create a new performance. In some regions of the world, acrobatic skills are passed down through families, creating dynasties of performers that date back for centuries. Training often begin very young; in competitive gymnastics, for instance, many performers hit peak ability in their early teens, and may retire from competition before age 20.

Jugglers may be considered a type of acrobat.
Jugglers may be considered a type of acrobat.
Circuses and other public performance groups may employ acrobats.
Circuses and other public performance groups may employ acrobats.
Sprinting can help an acrobat improve their agility.
Sprinting can help an acrobat improve their agility.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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