Portuguese Culture

Master the Ropes of the Trade: Porto’s Circus School

In our Facebook group, my friend, Sheena, said that one of her friends is at the circus school in Porto. She said this school is “one of the few places in the world that is certified to teach hair suspension training. [It] is a skill that is usually passed on only in families.”

That got me thinking. First – there are schools for teaching circus skills? I thought those skills were passed on one-to-one, like in a master and student relationship. Second – what the heck is hair suspension? Third – this would make an awesome post!

I set out looking for these answers and learned something new. Read on to learn more about the circus, circus school, and hair suspension training.

What is the Circus?

An article in Brittanica says the circus is “of comparatively recent origin, yet certain elements can be traced back to ancient Rome. The great Roman amphitheatres – called circuses after the Latin word for ‘circle’ – were most often devoted to gladiatorial combats, chariot races, the slaughter of animals, mock battles, and other blood sports.”

Luckily, we no longer have gladiatorial combats and blood sports nor do we slaughter animals in modern circus. Today’s circus is “a spectacle of trained animal acts and exhibitions of human skill and daring.”

The earliest record of acrobatics, juggling, and balancing acts date back to early Egypt in 2500 BCE. “The Greeks practiced rope dancing; early African civilizations engaged in siricasi (a combination of folkloric dances and acrobatics); and the ancient Chinese juggled and performed acrobatic acts for members of the imperial court. Clowns have existed in nearly every period and civilization, both as characters in farces and as individual performers.”

See this article by Antony Dacres Hippisley Coxe for a fascinating tale of the history of the circus. The three preceding quotes are attributed to this article.

What is a Circus School?

According to Wikipedia, “Circus schools are institutions that offer professional and sometimes degree-level training in various circus skills. [These include] acrobatics, aerial arts, object manipulation, and other specialized physical skills.”

Traditionally, circus skills were a family affair. Older members of a family passed down skills to the younger generations in their family. That all changed in the 1970s. Circus schools began opening to teach students who weren’t born into circus families.

Did you know that you can get a bachelor’s degree in circus arts performance? Many countries offer this, and some even offer a master’s or even doctorate in it. I did not know this until just a few minutes ago.

What is the Purpose of a Degree in Circus Arts? 

Many circus programs exist. Broadly, “circus programming can be categorized according to its overall objectives. 

“Recreational circus, whether for youth or adults, teaches circus techniques with the goal of personal development, physical fitness, and cooperative learning. 

“Social circus is differentiated from recreational circus because it specifically addresses a high-risk population (economic, developmental, survivors, etc.) and uses circus as a means of discovering empowerment and self-knowledge. 

“Pre-professional and professional training schools have a primary objective of preparing students for professional work in circus arts, and the variety of knowledge that entails.” (Alisan Funk, 2017)

I’ll be focusing my discussion on the Salto International Circus School, but there are circus schools all over the world. They all have a goal of advancing circus arts by training future performers, managers, and teachers.

Salto International Circus School

The Acro Clube da Maia, in northern Portugal, established the Salto Circus School in 2016. This is the home of some of the greatest acrobats in Portugal. See here for some great photos of students practicing at the school.

Training Area for Salto International Circus School

Acro Clube provides some of the best facilities in Portugal for gymnastics and circus. It has three full competition floors and four full trampolines. There are a foam pit, a tumble track, and a fast track. Two full sets of apparatus for gymnastics, four lounges, eight aerial points are available. Additionally, there are a weight zone, a ballet room, and a dance room.

The Salto Circus School offers a two-year, full-time program dedicated to a full range of specialties and performing areas. ​In addition to the two-year program, Salto School also offers Intensive Courses for 2-6 weeks, 2-6 hrs/day; Workshops 1-3 days, 8-20 hrs/weekend; and Artistic Residences, 1-3 months.

The Weekly Workload of the 2-Year Program at Salto

This is the weekly typical workload (35 hours) in this program (theoretical classes include anatomy, first aid, biomechanics, nutrition and physiology, and history of the circus):

1st year, 1st semester: Warm-up – 3h30, Gymnastic & Acro – 6h30, Trampoline – 2h, Aerial – 3h, Balance – 2h, Juggling – 3h, Juggling – 3h, Theatre – 2h, Basic Circus Tech. – 2h, Theoretical I* – 2h, Classical Dance – 2h, Contemporary Dance – 2h, Conditioning – 2h, Individual Training – 3h

​1st year – 2nd semester: Warm-up – 3h30, Gymnastic & Acro – 6h30, Trampoline – 1h, Aerial – 1h, Balance – 1h, Juggling – 1h, Theatre – 2h, Basic Circus Tech. – 2h, Theoretical I* – 2h, Classical Dance – 2h, Contemporary Dance – 2h, Specialty ‡ – 8h, Individual Training – 3h

2nd year – 1st semester: Warm-up – 3h30, Gymnastic & Acro – 6h30, Theatre – 2h, Basic Circus Tech. – 2h, Theoretical II** – 2h, Classical Dance – 2h, Contemporary Dance – 2h, Conditioning – 2h, Specialty ‡ – 10h, Individual Training – 5h

2nd year – 2nd semester: Warm-up – 3h, Ind. Routine Building – 5h, Theatre – 2h, Costumes – 2h, Show Creation – 4h, Classical Dance – 2h, Contemporary Dance – 2h, Specialty ‡ – 12h, Individual Training – 3h

During this last semester, each student builds their final number and create and set the techniques they’ll use. Students then premiere their numbers at the Municipal Theater of Maia. Each student shows their version of their circus art to the world. 

Says Camila Munoz, a student from Chile (2019), “The goal of Salto is to make you the best version of yourself.”

Hair Suspension Training and Performance

As the name implies, hair suspension (or hair hang) is “an aerial circus act where performers (usually young women) are suspended by their hair, performing acrobatic poses and/or manipulation. Some believe the act originated in South America; others claim the act hails from China. Performers hang suspended by their hair, which is tied into a hairhang rig. [T]he techniques used to tie the performer’s hair, and the acrobatic techniques involved in the act are key.” (Wikipedia)

Meet Danila Bim, Hair Suspension Artist/Performer

Danila Bim is a performer with Cirque du Soleil. Her hair suspension act is called “Mirage.” See it here on YouTube. All I can say is “Wowch!” That’s a combination of “Wow!” and “Ouch!”

In this article with The TODAY Show, Bim says, “Hair suspension is painful when you’re learning. Every discipline in the circus is. There’s a pain of adapting to every discipline we learn. For me, it was when I could lift myself off of the floor. It was magical to fly and not be holding (onto) anything and being able to dance with my own weight. That was the best feeling.”​

You might think of hair as being fragile. A single strand can potentially carry a weight of only 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces). In theory, “with proper technique, a full head of human hair could eventually hold between 5,600 kg and 8,400 kg (12,345 to 18,518 lbs) without breaking individual hairs or pulling out any follicles.” (Wikipedia)

Danila Bim takes about 25 minutes before each show tying her hair in intricate knots. She then puts those knots into a bun on the top of her head. She also incorporates the harness the rope attaches to into the bun. In addition, she spends about an hour applying her makeup and putting on her costume.

Although physical strength and flexibility are important to the act, Bim stresses the importance of the mental level. “[W]e have to do shows sad, happy or (sometimes) sick. We deal with so many people, with their expectations. And if you’re not in your right mind, even if your body is, you won’t be able to do so.”

To be sure, the circus is a lot of hard work. But the appreciation of the audience gives performers the strength and motivation to continue.

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