They’re Not Just Women – They’re Superwomen! – The Rise of the Female Circus Performer

Circus News

They’re Not Just Women – They’re Superwomen! – The Rise of the Female Circus Performer

Every day across the world, thousands of women perform daring feats of circus agility, whether in the traditional circus under the big top, in a theatre, at a festival, at an open-air event, at a corporate event, or even on the street; circus is an all-embracing art form that can happen anywhere. Throughout antiquity, there have been depictions of women presenting circus-style activities. In ancient Egypt, tomb paintings show female jugglers; Greek vases show female contortionists, and Roman vases show female acrobats. But we rarely stop to think that when the modern circus began some 250 years ago women were seldom seen; it was very much a male-dominated business. But some women did break through the barriers and found circus to be a medium in which they could have autonomy over their own bodies and an agency for their actions. They could find a freedom of expression that challenged the perceptions of femininity as promulgated by men.
Recently I was searching for a circus image that for an illustration and I was browsing through a collection of art work by the French artist Toulouse – Lautrec. He was a regular visitor to the several circuses in Paris and this was reflected in a collection of sketches he produced between 1888 and 1899. Of the forty-seven sketches that he produced some twenty-five show female performers, many actually during an individual performance. The acts shown are those that one might traditionally expect; equestrian, trapeze, tight-rope, acrobats, animal presentation but, interestingly, a female clown by the name of Cha-U-Kao. Admittedly several of the sketches show the same artiste in various poses but what is important for me is that, at this period in history, women are playing a significant role in the circus. At this point we should remember that the ‘modern’ circus, as we might recognise it today, was a little over one hundred years old. One particular sketch drew my attention. ...
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Steve Ward

Steve Ward has a background in theatre and clowning. He has created and directed many youth circus festivals in the UK, as well as in Germany and Brazil. He has a PhD in the social and cultural history of the circus, and is a member of the Circus Research Network and the Circus Arts Research Platform. To date, he has written seven books and many articles. Steve also lectures on aspects of circus history and has appeared on television and in many radio interviews. Steve is also available as a speaker on this and other circus topics. He also advises on educational and youth circus matters – and he still finds time to occasionally perform as a clown! Further information on Steve at www.steve-ward.net