Intricately adorned elephants, tigers jumping through flaming hoops and trained bears all come to mind when I think of circus animals.
But the circus as we know it today originally focused on a different animal, the horse.
I’ve been in a circus loving phase long enough that it’s perhaps no longer a phase and more of a lifelong obsession. The origins of commonplace things fascinate me, so as a circus aficionado, I’ve been digging into the origins of the circus.
In the initial phases of my research (which is to say, what Wikipedia has to offer on the matter) the circus began in Europe as fancy trick horse riding shows taking place within permanent structures each called a circus. The travelling circus with elephants, tigers and flaming hoops under the big top was largely an American creation.
At the time I found this confusing. Certainly Americans are imaginative folk, but why is it that circuses have such a strong association with Roma culture and traveling caravans? Surely the circus has roots that are more nomadic than outdoor auditoriums in large European cities.
I recently started reading the book Queen of the Air by Dean Jensen. And here I found all of the answers I was looking for. The circus has nomadic origins indeed!
Jensen describes a horse drawn wagon filled with children wandering through the Carpathians as an early incarnation of circus performance. Usually these wagons were filled with siblings and driven from town to town by their parents. As each child was born a new performer was added to the show.
Queen of the Air is the true love story of Lillian Leitzel and Alfredo Codona who were circus stars during the bigtops heyday in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. (I’m not terribly far into it, so I can’t write much of a review, but so far I’m captivated. The author has done an immense amount of research.) Both Lillian and Alfredo come from circus families, Lillian’s from Eastern Europe and Alfredo’s from the US, where the families where circuses themselves. In Codona family’s case his mother and father were originally the whole circus. With just two performers Hortence Codona, Alfredo’s mother, would perform her act up until she was 7 months pregnant.
Horses, wagons and pregnant acrobats...the origins of the circus are even more fantastic and varied than I might have hoped. It’s an eclectic tradition so I anticipate discovering more amazing facts as I continue learn.
Images, excepting book cover, via Wikimedia Commons.
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