The Greatest Show-Offs On Earth: Learning Circus Skills In London

These days, it seems like wherever you are in London the call of a ringmaster shouting ‘roll up, roll up!’ isn’t too far away. Whether you’re spending a day at the Southbank’s London Wonderground, partying the night away at Cirque le Soir or just knocking back bubbly at a corporate event, you’re probably never more than six feet away from some toned trapeze artist swinging from the rafters. And as the home of the circus as we know it today, it seems only right that London’s seen such a recent surge of interest in the art form.

It was way back in 1768 when former cavalry sergeant major Philip Astley started the first modern day circus in Lambeth. He discovered that if he made his horse gallop in a tight circle, centrifugal force would allow him to perform what seemed like impossible feats on horseback. And so – being an enterprising sort of fellow – he drew a ring and invited the public to cheer him along as he rode around waving his sword in the air, one foot on the saddle and the other on the horse’s head. His trick riding became so popular he began to hire acrobats, rope-dancers, a clown and jugglers, performing their acts between his equestrian displays so he could keep the crowd entertained. All of which led him to create the first space where all these acts could be put on together to form a complete show. Lo and behold, the circus was born and soon afterwards it was replicated and refined, quickly spreading worldwide to become just about the hottest ticket of the late 18th and 19th century.

Nowadays, however, it isn’t just about sitting on the sidelines and enjoying the show. In fact, loads of Londoners are stepping into the ring to learn some of the amazing circus arts on offer. And while the days of lion taming are long gone, there are plenty of other skills that’ll help both pros and amateurs get fit and perform astounding acts at the same time. We checked out some of the schools at the forefront of the scene to find out just what’s on offer…

National Centre for Circus Arts, Hoxton

Hands down one of the most well-known schools in the city, they offer a huge range of circus training, whether you’re an absolute beginner or looking to complete your BA (yes, seriously!). From flying trapeze to aerial hoop, tight-wire walking to tumbling (and tons more too), there are plenty of unusual activities to get to grips with.  

“We see lots of kinds of people across the different classes”, says the Centre’s Jessica Ziebland. “Our youth programme is very popular and we’re fortunate to be able to offer bursaries to young people from low-income families. Our recreational adult classes are attended by lawyers, bankers, students, actors – everybody really. Our experience days are also really popular with everyone – we quite often have groups of birthday or hen parties taking part.”

Flying Fantastic, Battersea and Farringdon

Focussing on all things up high, Flying Fantastic offers a wide range of lessons at all levels, whether you’re just a fledgling or an aerial fanatic. Classes include silks, trapeze, hoop, slings, yoga and even pilates. They pay a lot of attention to the fitness side of things, so if you’ve never been an avid lover of running around Hyde Park in the pouring rain, this might be the alternative for you. After all, we’d imagine it’s not easy hauling your own body weight around in mid-air. 

“A typical class gives your whole body a great workout – in fact, there’s nothing quite like it”’ says Chris at Flying Fantastic. “It involves a combination of climbs, tricks, drops and conditioning as well as floor work. This mixture of intensity levels is acknowledged to be one of the best ways to burn fat and drastically improve your fitness. Before you know it, you’ll be hanging from the ceiling in no time!”

AirCraft, Woolwich

Another school concentrating mostly on the aerial arts, they also offer trapeze and, the rather exotic-sounding, Chinese rope. There’s a selection of different classes to choose from whether you’re after a taster class, full course or even a Foundation in Circus Arts. Starting to feel like you studied the wrong subject at uni? There are some great drop-in classes for kids too, including Trapeze Tots and – another awesome name alert – Circus Ninjas.

The team at AirCraft also performs on a regular basis if you ever want to catch them in the act or hire something spectacular for a big event.

Gravity Circus Centre, Leyton

Heading out East, you’ll find Gravity who offer silks, hoop and even private classes if you fancy a bit of one-on-one time. They’ve also got some out-of-the-ordinary workshops too, including October’s contortion sessions. The splits, anyone?

“Circus skills have grown so much in popularity over recent years”, adds Yam at Gravity. “There are so many more shows that have a circus element these days whether it’s cabaret, opera or theatre. Not to mention a growing interest in contemporary circus itself with the likes of Cirque du Soleil. It’s great that there are more and more places to learn as well. People like to have variety in their training regime and this makes a fun and more challenging way to stay fit.”

Circus Glory, Primrose Hill

This small school teaches mostly trapeze with a little bit of rope thrown in for good measure. Classes are run by professional performer Genevieve Monastesse who’s previously shown off her skills in a George Michael music video and as a stunt double for Kate Moss. Alongside her adult classes, she also hosts parties and workshops for kids, which on top of the usual stuff involve a few fun activities like juggling and plate-spinning. “I’m so glad circus skills are become more popular in recent years – they make a great way to express yourself”, she adds. “Oh, and trapeze is completely addictive!”

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