This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…“, check out this article by writer Catherine Doveland on being a Dance Trapeze Artist.
Dance Trapeze Artist
by Catherine Doveland
Let’s get one thing straight—a dance trapeze is NOT a flying trapeze. These two circus acts are very different, and I’m about to explain why.
What’s a circus?
Circus is a kind of performing art that incorporates a wide range of acts—from acrobats and clowns to horseback riding and trapeze arts.
If you hear circus and imagine a three-ring arena with animals and a ringmaster, you’re thinking of the traditional circus. For this article, I’m going to be talking about the contemporary circus.
Think about Cirque du Soleil for this. In the contemporary circus, all disciplines are divided into five genres: aerial, balance, acrobatics, object manipulation, and theater.
If you’re wondering where animal acts are, those are part of the traditional circus and are a dying act in modern times due to animal rights activism.
What’s a trapeze?
A trapeze is an aerial act, meaning that it takes place off the ground. The apparatus is made up of a metal bar wrapped in athletic tape with a rope attached to either end and suspended off the ground.
There are many different types of trapezes—flying, dance, triple, static, swinging, duo—and the differences come from the rigging.
There are two key rigging elements that determine what kind of trapeze you’re looking at: static or dynamic, and single point or double point.
Dynamic—for dynamic trapeze acts, all tricks rely on the trapeze moving back and forth.
Static—the title says it all: static trapezes stay still. Some can spin in place, but they’ll remain in the same spot.
Single point—the ends of the ropes are hung from the same point so that the ropes and bar form a triangle. Hanging both ropes from a single point allows the trapeze to spin.
Double point—each rope is hung from a different point, making a rectangle with the bar. Double point trapezes cannot spin, however, they can swing back and forth.
Here’s a test: the ropes of flying trapeze are suspended at two points, and the act relies on the bar swinging back and forth. What kind of trapeze is this?
If you answered dynamic double point, then you are correct. Now that you understand rigging, let’s talk about the dance trapeze.
What is a dance trapeze?
The dance trapeze is a single point static trapeze. It also goes by various names: static, solo, single point. None of these are incorrect, but static trapeze is too broad, as it could mean static double point as well as single point.
In the professional world, it is more often referred to as dance trapeze or single point trapeze.
I am a student at Circus Juventas, the largest youth circus school in North America. I’ve been doing trapeze acts since I was seven years old, starting in 2006. That’s twelve years at the time of writing this article, and I’m nineteen now.
I didn’t start doing dance trapeze specifically until I was fifteen, but I loved it from my first lesson. Four years later, I am a member of Circus Juventas’s elite dance trapeze team, the 1000 level class that performs in the summer show.
I know about the training, the pain, the performing experience, the tricks, and I’m here to explain how to write a character who can do dance trapeze.
How do I write what it’s like to do dance trapeze?
My first tip is don’t go into too much detail on the tricks. What’s important to remember is that circus is a visual medium of entertainment, and explaining it through writing doesn’t work.
Circus, in general, is, unfortunately, still an obscure art, and many people can’t even make the distinction between a traditional circus like the Ringling Bros. and a contemporary one like Cirque du Soleil.
I am also a student coach to younger dance trapeze artists, and from this experience, I’ve learned that circus can’t be explained with just words. It takes a lot of watching and doing to fully understand, and that’s impossible for the reader to do.
When writing dance trapeze, just go over the general spatial orientation of the character.
- Are they upside down or right-side up?
- Are the wrapped in the ropes or twisted around the bar?
And watch some videos of the act so you can get an idea of how to describe tricks. At the end of this article will be links to videos of me from my YouTube channel.
What does it take to be a dance trapeze artist?
All circus acts, not just dance trapeze, can’t be done by just anyone. It takes strength, flexibility, grace, agility, courage, dedication, a willingness to try new things, a high level of pain tolerance, and being okay with spending a lot of time upside down.
A good dance trapeze artist will also cross-train, and I’ll go into more detail about that in a later section. Basically, your dance trapeze character needs to be a badass.
Where can you learn dance trapeze
Circus equipment and rigging can be bought online or built from scratch, and if your character has the knowledge and resources, they could teach themselves.
It is possible to be self-taught in circus from watching videos and experimentation, but it is usually better to have a coach with your character to make sure they don’t die.
The best place to be coached in trapeze is, obviously, a circus school. There are three types of circus schools: recreational, preparatory, and professional. Recreational is a for fun program, an after school activity or a hobby.
Preparatory programs are nine-month programs that run during the school year to prepare its students for professional school entrance auditions.
And finally, professional programs are designed to prepare its students for a career in the circus arts, with classes about not just circus but also writing, circus history, and marketing.
For the paragraphs about training, I will be pretending your character is in a professional school or is a professional.
What does a dance trapeze artist look like?
There is no set body type that’s best suited for dance trapeze. They can be tall, short, any body type, gender, or race.
But something all dance trapeze artists have in common is that they are aerialists, meaning that they will be using their upper body strength to pull themselves off the ground.
As a result of this, aerialists tend to look like triangles, with very developed shoulders and biceps and much skinnier legs. However, cross-training in dance or acrobatics can counteract this. They are also very graceful and flexible.
There is no widely accepted terminology for tricks in any circus act. What I call “dead drop”, another artist has called “lying in a tree”. I call one trick “Isabella” and another artist knows it as “open star”.
There are a few manoeuvres and positions that are universal such as “splits” or “hip balance”, but for the most part everyone has a slightly different dictionary of circus terms. This gives you a free hand to run wild and make up your own.
What is it dance trapeze training like?
Hard. And painful. But soooo much fun. It’s also very structured, so I’ll break down all the parts:
1 – Warm-up—some cardio to get the blood flowing and the body ready to move. Cardio can be anything from a run, jumping jacks, squats—everyone has their own preferences.
2 – Stretching—flexibility is pivotal to dance trapeze, and the muscles need to be eased into stretching to their fullest extent to prevent injury.
Key parts of the body to stretch are: shoulders, splits, back, and wrists. Some people do more, and everyone has a preference for stretches and routine. Combined, the warm-up and stretching can take between fifteen minutes to an hour.
3 – Dance trapeze—after all that ground stuff, it’s finally time to get in the air. A professional circus performer works on their discipline about the same length of time as an Olympic athlete: six to eight hours a day, five to seven days a week.
However, not all of that time is dedicated to dance trapeze. Cross-training is mandatory to make a good artist, and in the next section I’ll explain what a dance trapeze artist will also practice.
Cross-training is learning other skills and disciplines to improve on the principle act. It’s the same as an actor learning how to sing and dance, adding to their skill set to become a better artist.
Something all circus performers will train in is dance. Learning how to dance improves body awareness, grace, and smoothness of movement. It can be any style of dance, but the most common is usually contemporary or ballet.
Since dance trapeze artists are aerialists, they will usually train in other aerial acts such as silks, rope, lyra, even other types of trapezes. But their training isn’t limited to just disciplines in the aerial genre.
A trapeze artist can train in acrobatics to improve their dynamic skills, or balance acts like handstands to work on body awareness and control.
Your character has a lot of options, so you can pick what works best for the character and your story.
What to wear
Everyone has their own preferences on practice outfits, but it will always be something easy to move in, and form-fitting so all lines are visible and no extra fabric that can get caught on the bar or ropes.
Leotards are recommended, but I know plenty of people who just tuck their shirts into their leggings and are perfectly fine.
Rope burns are a frequent pain wherever they are, and clothes aren’t always enough protection. Rips, or blisters on the hands are also recurring injuries.
A common trick on dance trapeze is hip circles, and practicing these causes torn skin on the forearms and bruises on the stomach and hips.
Falling is something that can happen, and injuries depend on the height of the fall and how the artist lands. General muscle and joint soreness and pain is a constant companion.
To me, performing is the best part of circus. I love showing all my hard work and training in front of an audience and getting a reaction from them. But there’s more to performing than just the stage, audience, and tricks.
Costumes—your character can wear pretty much anything for a performance. I personally prefer to wear a full-body unitard, but I’ve also been forced to perform in just a leotard and fishnets.
I’ve also seen someone do an aerial act in just a nude crop top and shorts. You can design whatever costume you want to fit your story and character.
Music—circus is frequently performed to music. The song can be anything: classical, pop, jazz, instrumental, whatever you want. Your character will choreograph their act and tricks to the beats and rhythm of the song.
Makeup—everyone wears a little bit of makeup to highlight their features under the spotlight. But makeup can also be as extravagant as Cirque du Soleil with glitter, rhinestones, and full face paint. Again, just go with whatever fits your story and character.
I hope you found this article helpful, and maybe one day I’ll see you under the big top!
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Catherine Doveland is a young adult fantasy writer who’s working on her debut novel, The Breath of the Sea, which she hopes to publish before college graduation.
Alongside writing, she also pursues circus and a BA in theater arts.
In between these activities, she likes to watch dumb YouTube videos and build human pyramids with her friends.
She was born in China and currently lives in Minnesota.
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The “A Writer’s Guide” articles are linked to this page for easy access. I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any questions for Catherine, please drop them in the comments below.