Perhaps because the circus is viewed as a ‘popular art-form' rather than as ‘art’, awareness of its correct terminology is rare. This glossary is intended to guide writers and journalists so that – at last! – we of the Classical circus world can read about ourselves in correct terms.
ACROBAT: the physical skills used in the circus are based on acrobatics. Circus acrobats learn specialist skills such as trapeze, wire-walking, and so on.
ACT: a sequence within the overall performance. The presentation of their ‘routine’ by an artiste or group / troupe of artistes. The whole of the circus performance is ‘the show’ or ‘the circus’. The complete show cannot be referred to as ‘the act’.
ARTISTE: Spelt differently, but still (broadcasters!) pronounced in English as ‘artist’, not ‘arteest’. The spelling distinguishes between professional entertainers and artists in other fields.
BIG TOP: Writers and journalists have adopted this American term as the generic name for the tent. Which is what we ourselves call it – ‘the tent’! The huge American tented circuses of the past had tents of various sizes on site – some for side-shows, some for a menagerie, and so on – and since a circus tent is really a roof whose wallings are hung on as an addition, they were all known as ‘tops’. The largest was the one where the show itself took place – the Big Top. But in Europe, perhaps less romantically, it’s just ‘the tent’.
BUILD-UP and PULL-DOWN: a circus doesn’t ‘set up camp’. You could say we ‘set up’ the circus, or that we ‘install ourselves’ on a site; but ‘camping’ is not our field of activity. The tent is ‘built up’ on arrival, and ‘pulled down’ on departure. Caravans and transport vehicles ‘pull on’ and ‘pull off’ the site.
HIGH WIRE: what it says – a length of wire rope, set at a height for people to walk across. NOT a trapeze act, which is (unsurprisingly!) described by that name. A 'tight wire' or 'tightrope' is the same thing at about 2 metres from the floor, known traditionally (and romantically!) as the 'silver thread' . There's also the 'slack rope', thicker than a walking wire and less tensioned; and the 'bounding rope', where a spring mechanism allows the artiste to bounce up and down while balancing.
NUMBER: another word for an ‘act’. Old-tyme variety theatres listed acts next to a number, and the audience knew which was which without announcements being made because the number was displayed at the side of the stage or by an attendant.
RING DOORS: We don’t have a ‘stage’ in the circus, so it’s strange to us – and incorrect! - to see the area behind the curtains labelled ‘backstage’. Truly, the ‘ring door’ (singular) is the exit from the circus ring, the gap between the sections of ‘ring fence’ to allow artistes and animals to go in and out through the curtains of the ‘ring doors’ (plural), meaning in that sense the access to the private areas to the rear of the circus.
RING FENCE: The non-circus world has borrowed this one from us as the term for a retaining barrier. To circus people, it’s the heavy boxes, usually painted red on the outside and white on the inside, which make up the circus ring. Designed to guide the horses which were the founding feature of modern circus performance, it was originally a rope-and-stake circle before becoming what it says- a low fence – and then developed to become the familiar edging of the circus ring, heavily-enough constructed to withstand hoof-kicks. If you’re American, it’s a ‘ring curb’.
RINGMASTER: the person – traditionally a man, but often a woman – who stage-manages the performance and makes announcements. NEVER a ‘compère’ and certainly NOT a ‘ring leader’!
ROLL UP: folklore has it that ringmasters use this expression; but we don't! It dates from the 'old days', when a circus company would present short performances over and over throughout the day as a 'side-show' in a fun-fair. Competing against the other fairground attractions to draw customers, the circus's owner (often the head of a family of performers, and therefore the ringmaster) would bellow some phrase to passers-by, while performers paraded on the front of the circus booth, showing off samples of their skills. The ringmaster might shout 'Step this way'; or 'Walk up'. 'Roll up' was also in the vocabulary - but not any more ! Take a look at the image at the foot of this page.
SILKS Lengths of silky material hung from the roof of the circus and used by aerial performers to climb, wrap, and from which to perform drops. The basis of these moves is the same as for aerial rope-work, often referred to as 'web'; but silks are soft and flowing and romantic, and add greatly to artistic effect. Because of the training influences of leading circus schools in France and Canada, silks are known in 'Contemporary' circus by the French word 'tissus'. Similar variations in labelling apply to other circus equipment, too. The 'German wheel' (its Classical circus name) is also a 'Cyr wheel'; the 'aerial hoop' or 'aerial ring' is a 'cerceau'; and so on.
SPRINGBOARD: a heavy-duty ‘seesaw’, though it is NOT called a seesaw in the circus. People jump onto one end to send an acrobat who stands on the other end flying through the air. In America, but not in Europe, it’s called a ‘teeterboard’.
STUNT: Circus artistes don't perform 'stunts'! The word implies taking a risk against unknown forces. A stunt is a one-off, not a repeated performance. Circus artistes use their physical skills and their imagination to create physical feats which they repeat each time they perform. Circus performances often involve an element of danger, and sometimes the danger may be great because of height or speed of movement, but in the circus danger is controlled by the artiste's highly-trained actions.
TRAINER: someone who teaches other performers, human or animal. The trainer is generally also the PRESENTER of an animal act, demonstrating his rapport with the animals by guiding them through a routine of so-called 'tricks' - though since the circus is the most open of entertainments, no trickery is involved; that's just the term used.
TRAPEZE ACT: a trapeze is a solid bar hanging from two supporting ropes. It is not a ‘high wire’. The performer may swing back and forth during their act, and there may be two performers on a single trapeze, but this is not called ‘flying trapeze’ unless they fly through the air to be caught by someone on another trapeze.
TUMBLER: performing hand-springs and somersaults across the floor of the circus ring is ‘tumbling’. All tumblers are acrobats; not all acrobats perform as tumblers.