Enabler Publications

Books to feed the Mind and Spirit

The new youth arts and crafts bookThe new youth arts and crafts book

Sample from this book:

Circus skillsYouth circus


Historically and culturally it may be argued that most circus skills are popular developments from the traditional skills of the magic men: the shamans.



These were the people in a tribe who conjured up spirits and whose stock skills were magic, acrobatics and the skills of the fakirs, such as levitation, sword swallowing and sitting on a bed of nails. The ‘fools’ of the medieval court often employed juggling and clowning skills. Nowadays, the UK’s newer Travellers are among the most recent group to continue in the tradition of the ancient buskers and showmen using juggling, street music, fire-eating and occasional buffoonery. What has made them, and many European anarchic circus acts such as Archaos, Royale de Luxe, Malabar and Generik Vapeur particularly exciting for young audiences, is the confrontational nature of many of the acts. This type of circus uses no animals and the performers bring street skills and values of skateboarding, motor cycling, punk and rave cultures, radical theatre, loud music and pyrotechnics along with the more usual skills of acrobatics, clowning and juggling.

This book does not allow the space for a full scale introduction to circus and juggling skills. Dave Finnegan’s ‘The Complete Juggler’ is about the most practical guide to juggling and the associated skills required for balancing, diablos, plate and ball spinning, and using devil sticks. In the same Butterfinger’s series is Sebastian Hoher’s ‘Unicycling from beginner to expert’. A good book on circus skills with youth and community groups is Reg Bolton’s ‘Circus in a Suitcase’. His book is particularly good on clowning and community participation. He also offers the following checklist for street circus/busking:

  • Don’t obstruct the street or sidewalk.
  • Don’t block access to shops, which would turn the shopkeeper’s goodwill into bad.
  • Be sure the ground is safe for stilts and unicycles – not wet or slippery.
  • Don’t plan an acrobatic rolling sequence, unless you have a mat or grass.
  • Don’t use bouncy juggling balls unless you’re an excellent juggler.
  • Take a length of bunting for the front row of the audience to hold, if it is necessary to keep them back (from the performance area).
  • Don’t take a lot of loose props, and keep an eye on those you have. The public is generally kind to street performers, but you should avoid providing the temptation to steal your gear.

One of our advisors who runs a London-based juggling shop and teaches circus skills, confided with us, "Juggling is basically a very boring activity." However, it is still a skill which is not too hard to learn at a basic level, and children and young people seem to love both its repetition and the almost infinite variety of items which can be juggled or manipulated: balls, beanbags, rings, clubs, cigar boxes, scarves etc.. Special juggling scarves are particularly suitable to learn with because they fall more slowly through the air than balls. As Dave Finnegan says:

"Another characteristic of juggling is its rhythmic, almost mystical nature. It can have the same calming effects on your spirit as playing or listening to good music. For many, juggling is a form of meditation, of integrating mind, body and spirit."

It sounds pretty good to us!

Having attended a couple of circus skills workshops ourselves and quizzed the instructors, we’d like to emphasise that juggling and circus related skills are not like a lot of the other arts activities described in this book. They do take a good deal of practice to become proficient, and they cannot be learned in one practice session by adults, who can then teach them or pass them on to groups of young people. We would recommend that nearly all circus skills are best learned in workshops run by experienced practitioners. Young people often learn more quickly than adults, and learning by ‘seeing and doing’ is the most effective way to learn.

In the last couple of years the use of devil sticks, two sticks held in either hand and used for tossing and flipping a centre-stick have, together with the use of diablos and plate-spinning, greatly increased in popularity alongside juggling.

Many young street performers now mix juggling with the use of diablo spinning and throwing and devil sticks, and may even combine this with:

  • unicycling
  • stilt walking
  • clowning
  • acrobatics.

Putting on a showYouth arts & crafts roadshow

Whilst it is easy to accomplish basic moves, the juggling arts, acrobatics and balancing take practise and more practise to achieve real skill which can be used to entertain an audience. From Aikido, performers may learn to ‘stay with the experience’ – the more you practise, the better the focus of attention. Showmanship is also something which has to be learned. For young people, it is worth getting them used to thinking in terms of:

  • how they are dressed and made up;
  • what they say;
  • how they move;
  • how they can involve an audience;
  • good links to use between sequences and stunts;
  • the development of their own personal, unique style of presentation.

For playschemes and similar, a ‘circus’ performance for families, friends and other members of the very localised community can form a good focus for an event. There can be lots of different types of performance including BMX/mountain bike riding, dance and skateboardingBike riding and roller or blade skating. Plate-spinning and diablo manipulation are easier to learn up to a rudimentary level for a lot of young people than juggling, and offer a useful introduction to circus skills. Use of a ‘Play-go’ which is a bit like a pedal skateboard, can be a good way to learn the balancing skills and co-ordination necessary to ride a unicycle. Combined in a show with a compere, music, acrobatics and plenty of colourful costumes, lack of highly developed skills don’t matter much. Enthusiasm and energy count for a lot!

There are also a lot of myths and secrets surrounding circus skills; for instance, many young people can learn to stilt walk in under two hours! If you are stumped for contacts in the circus/juggling worlds, you could try to get help from the people listed in the suppliers’ section at the end of the book. As well as supplying circus and other equipment (such as training videos, books, earthballs and parachutes) to buy and hire, often at discount prices they also have a lot of experience in running kids’ workshops and circus shows.

read another sample from this book - bubbles

The new youth arts and crafts bookThe new youth arts and crafts book

Alan Dearling and Howie Armstrong

Published by RHP

184 pages

ISBN 898924 75 9

£14.95 plus £1.50 p&p

Read more free samples on youth work

or, view our books to buy on youth work