Under the big top: An exploratory analysis of psychological factors influencing circus performers


A significant collection of research examines the performance’s psychological aspects in sports. However, more research must be done on the psychological aspects of performers in other fields, including circus arts. The study was intended to investigate the challenges posed by circus performers and the psychological strengths that contribute to performing at the highest level. The goal of the study was to gain (a) an overall understanding of the psychological aspect of circus art, (b) insight into differences in the mental aspects that circus artists face and performing arts/sports as well as (c) knowledge of variations that may exist between particular disciplines of circus arts. The participants ( n = four) included two clowns/mimes and two aerialists. Each participant participated in a 30-minute semi-structured interview regarding how they think about their practice and performance. The results revealed that the ability to manage mental skills like confidence, concentration, energy management, and emotional control are essential to the success of circus arts. The results also highlighted the distinctions between the sport and circus domains regarding the ability to convey emotions and connect with the spectators. Future research should investigate these issues more comprehensively and keep examining the differences in circus and different performing domains.


The psychology of performance and sport (SPP) has grown in popularity in amateur and professional sports to boost performance and gain an edge. It also has found its spot in the fields of military, business, as well as performing arts, even though it is still relatively new to these domains (Harmison, 2011; Hays, 2002; Hays, 2009; Jones, 2002, Williams, Ericsson, Ward, & Eccles, 2008). A vast and expanding collection of research examines the psychological experience of athletes and performing arts fields. However, there need to be more studies that examine the psychological aspects of performers in other areas where the need for these services is increasing. One such area is the performing arts circus. The circus arts demand the integration of athleticism and skills (Filho et al., 2016; Menard & Halle, 2014). While the literature about performers and athletes can provide a solid foundation for service delivery, merging disciplines creates unique challenges that require further investigation.

Researchers have created an impressive amount of research to understand better the psychological capabilities that contribute to performance excellence in sports (Williams and colleagues. 2008). Since the discipline has gotten bigger and expanded, researchers have begun to include studies of the performing arts too. A lot of the psychological elements that influence the performance of athletes can also be a factor for performing artists (Hays & Brown, 2002). These include skills like managing performance anxiety and pressure, emotional regulation, and creating and keeping motivation, confidence, dedication, and focus (Gilson, 2010). Hamilton and Robson Hamilton and Robson, 2006. Hays, 2002; Hays, 2009; Krane, Williams, 2006, Nordin-Bates, 2012; Vealey and Chase, 2008; Taylor and Taylor, 1995). Like every sport with specific pressures, each art is also subject to forces. This is the reason for the variations in applying the same mental abilities. Several books have been released to guide SPP professionals who work with people who perform, including Dance Psychology (Taylor et al., 1995). “You are on! Consulting to maximize performance (Hays & Brown, 2002) and the application of performance psychology (Hays, 2009). These texts offer concrete examples of integrating intervention strategies and approach to consulting in sports to work with performers in a manner that considers specific mental challenges each discipline faces and the abilities required to succeed in these situations. Since circus arts comprise an amalgamation of acrobatic sports and performing art, a lot of the research about what athletes experience and performers can be used to develop a fundamental knowledge of their psychological conditions.

Various psychological effects of performing and sports are also present in the circus setting. M. Halle, senior performance psychologist at Cirque du Soleil, and J. F. Menard, SPP consultant for Cirque du Soleil, offer an insight into the cultural aspects and practices of the circus based on their own experiences. Menard & Halle (2014) noted that most circus performers are from elite sports backgrounds and have learned the essential psychological skills required to succeed. Halle stated in an interview that dealing with fear-related issues and learning to build confidence is crucial in the field of performance arts, like the circus (American Psychological Association 2012). A recent study by Halle and Shrier (2011) on the psychological risks that lead to injuries among circus performers demonstrated the importance of a situation-specific sense of confidence (self-efficacy) within this area. The results showed that aerial performers with high self-efficacy were nearly 50% less likely to get injured than those with low self-efficacy. Filho et al. (2016) also addressed the impact of injury-related fear on aerialists’ ability to concentrate and the importance of pre-performance exercises to control attention. The relationship between anxiety and concentration is similar to what has been described in the literature of gymnasts and athletes from other sports with high-risk sports and high-risk sporting activities (Brymer & Oades, 2008; Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013, Chase, Magyar, & Drake 2005). Studies of circus performers emphasize the importance of mental abilities in dealing with stress, performance anxiety, and emotional control within circus arts (Filho & Co., 2016; Halle Shrier, 2011). The ability to recognize emotions is critical when it comes to mimicry and clowning because it relies on methods involving physical acts, telling stories, and communicating feelings using biological processes. Although particular abilities may be more useful in specific contexts, they are not new requirements for performers or athletes.

Although this does show some commonalities among the mind-related aspects in sports, performing arts, and the circus, there are specific domain-specific mental problems that come from circus arts. Based on Menard and Halle (2014), The ability to transfer skills and knowledge from the sports arena to the circus is a crucial aspect of performance achievement, as is the transfer of identity between the two areas. Cirque shows often require collaboration with other performers. Since many performers are moving away from individual sports like diving and gymnastics performing on stage, sharing the spotlight can be an obstacle. In addition, many new circus performers must develop their artistic identity, including learning how to perform and dance, wear makeup, and communicate their emotions on the stage (Filho & Co., 2016; Menard & Halle, 2014). The transition from the formal sports world to the more creative art of circus may be a difficult task, and it is essential to be a successful circus performer that they are competent to navigate the mental and physical changes (American Psychological Association 2012; Clay & Co., 2011; Filho and co. (2016); J. et al. communication, 22 March 2013; Menard & Halle, 2014).

The circus arts require the audience’s participation, not winning judges’ attention or overcoming the contest. The experts who study psychology in circus arts believe this is a different way of thinking than one influenced by competition. It demands “adaptability and flexibility” on behalf of the performers to establish the relationship they desire with the audience (Filho and others. 2016, 2016; J. et al. communication, 22 March 2013. Menard and Halle, 2014). The function of the audience was discussed extensively in the literature about theater. However, it should have been addressed in SPP, which is the audience as a new idea (Hamilton, 2007). Filho et al. (2016) examine the pressure on the public as felt by clowns. They suggest using strategies for managing attention, like mindfulness, to alleviate the perception of stress.

Another distinction between sport and circus-related environments, such as that in Cirque du Soleil or that of the National Circus School, is the international setting. Performers must overcome language barriers and build the ability to cross-culturally build trust and communication with other performers, as do SPP professionals (Filho and others. 2016 Menard and Halle 2014). In multi-show circuses with high-performance levels, such as Cirque du Soleil, performers must also adapt to performing more frequently than they practice. Cirque du Soleil performers can achieve more than 400 shows every year. It differs from the sports environment in which athletes train far more frequently than they do (J. et al. personal communication, 22 March 2013, 2013; Menard & Halle, 2014). Artists can also perform in various venues (big tops and arenas, theaters, and outdoors), each with a unique set of challenges they must prepare for (Menard & Halle, 2014). Presently, the only research about the SPP’s use with circus groups is based on experience with Cirque du Soleil and the National Circus School (Filho et and. (2016) Halle as well as Shrier, 2011 Menard, and Halle, Menard, and Halle). These are professional programs that seek to attract and train high-quality circus artists. Many circus artists are trained and perform in contexts other than Cirque du Soleil and the National Circus School, such as performers who perform at concerts, festivals, or private occasions. Every setting has its unique difficulties, and it is crucial to understand the people who serve in this group for the knowledge of different calibers of circus artists to be studied.

This study aims to investigate the psychological challenges circus performers face to broaden the scope of literature to encourage further development of the use of SPP and increase the efficiency of delivering SPP solutions to circus performers. This research was intended to provide an in-depth study of the mental issues that circus performers face and the strengths of their minds, which contribute to the performance excellence of the field. By conducting interviews with individual circus performers in the areas of clowning (including clowns and mimes) and aerial arts, we expect to gain (a) an understanding of the psychological aspect that circus artists face, (b) insight into the differences in the mental aspects of circus arts and performing arts/sports as well as (c) understanding of the variations that could exist between particular disciplines in circus arts.

Section Snippets


Participants were selected randomly from professional connections to circus centers across the United States. Participants were required to be either aerialists or clowns/mimes with two or more years of performance experience in their area and also performers at the time of the study. Aerialists were selected as they symbolize circus arts’ dangerous and acrobatic aspects. Likewise, clowns/mimes were chosen because they are the performing arts component through improvisational theatre.


The data analysis used Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA; Smith, 1996). The goal of this method was to bring together as much as possible a more contextual understanding of the individual’s experiences in the realm of circus and current research on the psychological factors that influence performers (i.e., athletes, athletes, and performers). This strategy was chosen to allow the researchers to study the intricate process of psychology involved in the circus.


The following subjects are considered concerning experiences with aerialists and clowns/mimes. The motivation behind their involvement within the circus, relationships with the public, challenges and advantages of collaboration with other performers, mental abilities required to perform at the highest level in a specific discipline, cognitive difficulties encountered in particular fields, methods of mental preparation which are being used today, and possible ways to make use that SPP can bring to the circus. There are commonalities as well as


The study sought to understand the essence of the psychological experience of circus performers about the performance. Results revealed complex, rich mental processes that point out similarities in all participants’ affairs and the differences in discipline that could be observed between clowning and miming.

One thing that may be unique to the realm of circus art is a shift from sports to circus. According to the current books and


Participants’ responses in this study reinforce the idea that similar mental capabilities are utilized by athletes, circus performers as well as performing artists to achieve their goals. The application of these skills is specific to a particular discipline or domain. Circus arts is a distinct field that includes diverse disciplines like clowning/miming, juggling, and aerial Acrobatics (Filho and colleagues. (2016)). How confident you feel and look like a performer could be

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