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Barnum & Bailey clowns and geese2.jpg
Advertisement for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1900
Types Contemporary circus
Ancestor arts Drama

A circus is a company of performers that may include clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, unicyclists, as well as other object manipulation and stunt-oriented artists. The term 'circus' also describes the performance which has followed various formats through its 250-year modern history. Philip Astley is credited with being the 'father' of the modern circus when he opened the first circus in 1768 in England. Early circuses were almost exclusively demonstrations of equestrian skills with a few other types of acts to link the horsemanship performances. Performances developed significantly through the next fifty years, with large scale theatrical battle reenactments becoming a significant feature. The 'traditional' format, whereby a ringmaster introduces a varied selection of acts that mostly perform choreographed acts to traditional music, developed in the latter part of 19th century and continued almost universally to be the main style of circus up until the 1970s.

As styles of performance have changed since the time of Astley, so too have the types of venues where these circuses have performed. The earliest modern circuses were performed in open air structures with limited covered seating. From the late 18th to late 19th century custom-made circus buildings (often wooden) were built with various types of seating, a centre ring, and sometimes a stage. The 'traditional' large tents, commonly known as 'Big Tops' were introduced in the mid 19th century as touring circuses superseded static venues. These tents eventually became the most common venue and remain so to the present day. Contemporary circuses perform in a variety of venues including tents, theatres and casinos. Many circus performances are still held in a ring usually 13 m (42 ft) in diameter. This dimension was adopted by Philip Astley in the late 18th century as the minimum diameter that enabled an acrobatic horse rider to stand upright on a cantering horse to perform their tricks.

Contemporary circus has been credited with reviving the circus tradition since the 1980s when a number of groups introduced circus based almost solely on human skills and which drew from other performing art skills and styles.

  • 71% of the observed animals had medical problems
  • 33% of tigers and lions did not have access to an outdoor enclosure
  • Lions spend on average 98% of their time indoors
  • An average enclosure for tigers is only 5 m2
  • Elephants are shackled in chains for 17 hours a day on average
  • Elephants spend on average 10 hours a day showing stereotypic behaviour
  • Tigers are terrified of fire but are still forced to jump through fire rings
  • Since 1990 there have been over 123 cases of lion attacks at circuses
  • Animals are trained through discipline.
  • Assael, Brenda, "Circus and Victorian Society", 2005, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville
  • Croft-Cooke, Rupert and Cotes, Peter. 1976. Circus: A World History. Elek. London
  • Johnson, William M. 1990. The Rose-Tinted Menagerie. Iridescent Publishing
  • Nance, Susan. Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus (Johns Hopkins University Press; 2013) 304 pages; elephants as "actors" or creatures of agency in the American circus from 1800 to 1940.
  • Speaight, George, "A History of the Circus" 1980, The Tantivy Press, London
  • Stoddart, Helen, "Rings of Desire: Circus History and Representation", 2000, Manchester University Press, Manchester
  • Adams, Katherine H. (2012). Women of the American Circus, 1880-1940. McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers. ISBN . 
  • Dfening, Fred D., III (November 2007). "The American Circus in the 1870s: An Overview from Newspaper Sources". Bandwagon. Columbus, Ohio: Circus Historical Society. 51 (6): 4–60. ISSN 0005-4968. —provides an overview of "low-yield research" into the history of the American Circus as covered in "ragcontent newspapers [and] magazines [such as] White Tops"
  • Brooke, Bob (October–November 2001). "Step Right Up: Bob Brooke presents the history of the circus in America". History Magazine. 
  • Simon, Linda. The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus (Reaktion Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press; 2014); 296 pages;


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