We would be extremely bored at the big top if all safety measures in the circus were transparent to the public. We don’t mean the audience cannot “see” safety measures. This doesn’t mean they secretly wear tiger-repellent vests and gravity-defying pants that enable acrobats to fly effortlessly between trapeze bars. There are a lot of checks and balances behind the scenes that ensure performances run smoothly.
As with all circuses, you shouldn’t expect the unexpected. We will tell you what keeps the circus going; some might surprise you. A healthy scalp can save your life for some performers.
Let’s get to the most basic aspect of safety in circus: the rigging systems. Look up to see how performers glide through the air so effortlessly.
This is undoubtedly the most important safety strategy in circus safety that you will ever see as a starry-eyed spectator. Rehearsal, which goes beyond simply practicing the routine, is the most crucial part of any safety program for a circus. Proper preparation requires a lot of physical training, as well as workouts. Cross-training and exercise both strengthen your muscles and protect you from overuse injuries.
As we have already mentioned, many acts must deal with failures and complications. Performers must not only practice their normal acts, but also learn how to adapt during snags. Performers and crew can become very sensitive to making mistakes by performing multiple versions of the same routine. This level of attention and vigilance helps to keep a performance on schedule, even when things go wrong.
2: Preparing plans A through Z
We’ve discussed fail-safe measures or actions that could cause an “alert” accident. But almost every act has at least one. There are many double-checking involved in making sure that everything goes smoothly. Sometimes, it happens right in front of our eyes.
Audiences don’t realize that performers may be working from Plan B, C, D, etc. Performers and crew can’t just learn the “normal” plan when they do multiple weekly shows. They must be ready for any complications. This is even more true for acts that involve mechanical devices. Every mechanical device they use must have a backup plan. It’s not possible to just shrug off failures. Crew and performers rely on a plan to ensure the performance continues or ends safely.
How are these backup plans for performers and crew formalized? Practice.
3: Animal Safety
How can we talk about the circus without talking about animal acts. They are popular in circus ring, and we don’t want to pretend they’re not controversial. While most acts operate like a well-oiled machine there is a way to coach wild animals into submission.
How we treat animals directly impacts how safe they are for humans. For example, a veterinarian must treat sick elephants and be given the blessing before they can perform. Big cat trainers claim to use classical and operant conditioning to ensure their animals are safe. Warning: This is a controversial topic. While some strategies can be used to keep animals and audiences safe, many people would argue that they aren’t enforced or effective.
Although it can be depressing to read about circus disasters, many safety strategies you see today were developed in response to accidents under the big top. The Hartford Circus Fire in 1944 claimed 167 lives and injured hundreds. The lack of proper exits caused panic and chaos, which led to a stampede.
Clearly, rules for temporary entertainment had to be changed after the Hartford tragedy. The American Standards Association established national safety regulations for circus, fair and carnival entertainment. Tents must be fireproof and trained firemen must be present on site. Exit regulations are also in place. While you might be blissfully unaware as you watch a clown having fun, you should know that safety regulations and standards are in place to keep you safe.
Although, unfortunately, such a tragic incident was necessary to make the job easier for circus performers, a recent improvement in safety in circus could help. Eight hair-tying aerialists were killed in a horrific accident that occurred in 2014. Although none of the artists were hurt, severe injuries were sustained.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus responded quickly by agreeing to change their safety protocols for aerial acts. The biggest change is requiring an engineer registered and licensed to inspect the equipment and acts . Hardware and equipment assessments require a checklist. Employees must also have a “safety-day” to communicate concerns or practices.
6: Hair Strength
You didn’t know that good conditioning was vital for circus safety. You are a fool. Many circus performers believe a healthy scalp is essential for safety and security. You might be wondering if this list is losing its beauty. But you don’t have to forget circus hair hanging .
The first time hair hanging was popularized in China as a performing act, it has since become a popular contemporary trend. Hair hanging is an act that involves performing acrobatics or contortionist acts while their hair is suspended from their thick locks. While it may seem like this is the end of the story to an audience member, it’s just the beginning. A lot of safety preparation goes into making hair strong and ready to go for a good dangle. Performers condition their hair multiple times per day. The best thing about performing artists’ hair is the braids they use. Certain braids distribute weight evenly on the ring, making the act less painful and hair stronger. You want to learn more? You can’t. They are well-kept secrets that audience members can never learn.
7: Learning to Fall
Non-circus folks would believe that it is the best way for you to be safe performing a trick, even during practice. This is true. It’s dangerous to be lazy and not have a backup plan. Some aerialists do not use nets when working close to the ground or with equipment that could tangle. This keeps them alert and on top of their game. However, this doesn’t mean they aren’t preparing for danger.
What is the most important part of practicing? Correctly making a mistake is a key part of practice. You can’t even take a tumble from the trapeze without careful preparation. For example, one must learn to fall into a net most efficiently and safely. It becomes more difficult when you consider that the net can be dangerous. It’s so taut that you could hit it and even break bones if your body isn’t prepared for impact.
Of course, circuses are not all about aerials or flying trapeze acts. Equestrian acts are safer than airborne, but it’s difficult to believe that a horse of 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) can be ridden at top speed. Yes, it’s possible to master every trick by simply getting back on your horse (pun intended), but the equestrian practice requires certain safety equipment in some circuses.
A mechanic in circus isn’t someone who will charge twice for something you don’t need. It’s instead a safety belt that performers wear to lift them off horses if something goes wrong. It can be left loose so that performers can practice their moves, but crew members keep an eye on them to tighten them quickly in case of an accident or fall. It’s possible to not see it as an audience member but it is an important safety strategy during rehearsals as people (or animals!) learn their routines.
9: Joysticks and Kill Switches
We’ll discuss safety and rigging strategies that the audience may not see. Let’s look at the tragic Cirque du Soleil accident in 2013 that resulted in the death of a Cirque performer. We’ll look at some safety measures that went wrong to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragic accident. Sarah Guillot Guyard was an aerialist at the “Ka” show in Las Vegas. Her wire snapped, and she fell to 94 feet (29m) .
Aerialists use joysticks to adjust their speed to ascend and descend at the desired levels. It’s not a stagehand grunting as he pulls wires. Performers use a machine to lift and lower themselves. You might understand why technicians are equipped with “kill switches.” These are designed to shut down the rigging when there is danger. The audience may not be aware that there is another safety strategy. Guillot Guyard rose faster than she expected, and the kill switch wasn’t activated.
Many safety mechanisms are hidden under the big top and connected to aerial acts. It’s not a spontaneous act to hang from a high vantage point, perform acrobatic tricks, or fly between one place and another. Experts control the rigging that keeps aerialists safe but are not visible to the public.
Rigging refers to the wires and lines that control performers’ movements in the air. Although we can name a standard in riggings, such as window washing, or construction, it is difficult to describe how rigging functions in circus. Because acts in circuses strive to be unique, their rigging systems must be tailored to their specific actions. Let’s look at one element of rigging that many circus acts used.
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Authors Note: 10 Safety Strategies for Circus Audiences That the Audience Doesn’t See
To be fair, it might be just as cool to see all these safety strategies in action at work as the performances. Okay, maybe not as cool, but still cool. It’s amazing to see how crew members prepare for a performance and anticipate their needs.