It's time! We're going to the circus. Our first sight is the midway, a
gauntlet of colorful temptations that stretches out between us and the
main entrance to the tent. In a building, it might only be a concession
stand or two, but on a traditional tented circus lot, there is still a
glimmer of what the big midways of a half-century ago must have looked
like. There is much to see and hear, and still plenty of reason for arriving
early on the lot: time for exchanging whatever free or reduced-price coupons
we have managed to collect for tickets; time for the kids to pull us toward
the moon walk,the snake pit, or the elephant rides; time to stock up on
a supply of enough cotton candy and cherry snow cones to turn hair and
fingers sticky and lips bright red; and time to take in the colored lights
and brilliant bannerline paintings of exotic animals and clowns.
The bugmen who used to sell chameleons and bugs and fish are gone, and the old pirate sword has been replaced by the star-wars variety of light sword as the most popular souvenir, but there are still balloons, pennants, miniature bull whips, and a variety of other toys and souvenirs for sale. If we resist them all now, never mind: the candy butchers will continue to hawk their wares during the show, until someone in the family is persuaded to break down and buy. After all, concessions are a major source of income for both the show and the butchers, so Grandma is helping to keep the circus in business when she spoils her grandson.
If there are to be lions and tigers at all, the customary opening act for the traditional three-ring circus is the cage act in center ring. The self-supporting bars of the show cage, along with the tunnel cage or cage train bringing in the animals, are usually in place before the performance, because they take a while to set up. All other animal acts, with the exception of the elephants, are traditionally performed before the intermission as well, so they can be promptly fed and loaded following their final performances and on their way to the next stand. The elephants are traditionally the last act of the show, not only because they tend to require extensive clean up behind them, but also because they are often used in the teardown procedures after the final blow-off.
Circus performers, who will in the next two hours, stretch our notions of what the human body can do. They are called in circus lingo, “kinkers”, presumably because they must constantly be stretching the kinks and soreness out of their muscles. It must be borne in mind that most performers stay with any one show for only a year or two, before moving on to other shows. In this way, each circus maintains its freshness and vitality.
In his A History of the Circus in America, George Chindahl identifies a bewildering two hundred or so circus acts. In Circus Techniques, Hovey Burgess simplifies our problem by dividing all the acts into three broad categories: vaulting, which includes leaping and flying; equilibristic, or balancing; and juggling. All three can be combined in a variety of ways, and all three can be done on the ground and in the air.