Traditional vs. Contemporary Circus

When I tell people that I am a circus performer, I field plenty of questions about what exactly I am performing. These questions can get pretty ridiculous, such as, “Do you stick your head in a tiger’s mouth?” (The answer is no, that isn’t the type of circus I’m in.) Other questions can actually be surprisingly thought provoking, for example, “Is it true that traditional circus is from America and contemporary circus is from Canada?” (To be honest, I wasn’t sure about the answer for that one.) I’ve been giving some thought about how to react to questions such as these lately, and I’ve realized that there is really one controversy at the root of them all; What is the difference between traditional and contemporary circus?

To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what the difference between the difference between traditional and contemporary circus is, so I decided to do some research. The first documented circus ever was during 1782, in Paris, France, and was started by a man named Philip Astley. It began with only equestrian stunts, but soon Astley began to work in various other characters, such as clowns, jugglers, and acrobats. This all took place in a circular structure that we would now call a ring. Circus continued to grow popular in Europe, and eventually it came to the United States too. In 1797, a trick rider name John Bill Ricketts started the first circus show in the U.S. Soon, more and more circuses started to pop up around America. However, the early nineteenth century was a time of change in American history. For the first time, the public was starting to migrate westward, out of New England. This left circus performers with a problem. How could they stay in business if their audience was moving west and they weren’t? The answer proved to be surprisingly simple. Instead of performing in permanent buildings, circuses began to use canvas tents for their shows. This new technology was invented by Joshuah Purdy Brown. Around this same time came the popularization of wild animals in circuses. Eventually, with the expansion of the railroad system, circuses were able to travel relatively easily around the country. Main characteristics of traditional circus include performances in rings and tents, animal acts, and a ringmaster.

Contemporary circus is much newer, and a whole lot harder to find information about. The first documentation of contemporary circus is during the seventies. According to many sources, contemporary circus started in France, although it quickly became a worldwide movement. Soon enough, contemporary circus grew equally, if not more, popular than more traditional styles. While contemporary circuses often travel, they most often perform in theaters and on stages instead of rings in tents. In addition, contemporary circus usually have only human performers, and no animal acts. Contemporary circus is much more story and character based than traditional circus. Contemporary circus also likes to incorporate non-traditional circus skills such as various dance styles, musical variety, and a central theme.


Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam (

So although traditional and contemporary circus may have many differences, such as theme, theater, and animals, but the basis is the same. In fact, today many circuses aren’t traditional or contemporary, but a mix of both styles. For example, in my opinion Cirque Du Soleil artfully blends traditional and contemporary styles. Undeniably, circus is a diverse art, which is exactly what makes it wonderful.

Circus on!

~Juniper ✯

Sources for this article include:


  1. The first circus began in 1768 in London not Paris, France. Astley is known as ‘the Father of Circus’ and he began to display trick riding in London!
    George Speaight wrote the authoritative history of the Circus in 1980.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.