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The first circus was the Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome. After the fall of Rome, the Western World didn't have another organized and successful circus until the late 18th century, when Philip Astley brought the idea to London. P.T. Barnum founded the circus that would become the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1871.

Bearded Lady

Bearded ladies are women who, because of hormones, can grow beards. The longest female beard on record belongs to Vivian Wheeler and is 11 inches long. Books that feature bearded ladies include Shakespeare's “Macbeth" and Lemony Snicket's “A Series of Unfortunate Events."

Elephant Acts

Elephant acts have become much rarer since an elephant named Tyke rampaged and killed his trainer during a circus performance in 1994. After breaking out of his cage, Tyke ran out of the circus tent and was loose in the streets of Honolulu for over 30 minutes. Animal organizations have been calling for fewer elephant acts ever since.

Fire Breathing

Breathing fire is an easy skill to master, but very dangerous. The performer holds fuel in their mouth, usually paraffin or lamp fuel, and sprays it near a flaming torch. Tim Black set a world record by blowing a flame that was seventeen feet long. This fiery trick started in India.

Giants and Midgets

Many people with genetic differences, like gigantism or dwarfism, found homes in circus sideshows, where people would pay to look at the unusual or bizarre. Because of ethical reasons, very few sideshows remain today, and most of them are on the East Coast. A very famous modern sideshow is the Sideshow by the Seashore on Coney Island.

Horse Acts

The first circus act that involved animals and humans together was the horse show. Horses that perform in the circus are taught with a special technique called longeing. Riders stand on top of the saddle or, in a very dangerous move, dangle below the animal. Sometimes this routine is called the Liberty Horse.


The first mention of juggling was on an Egyptian tomb painting in the 15th century. Jugglers throw a continuous loop of balls, bean bags, pins and rings. Sometimes adventurous jugglers will juggle chainsaws or knives. The word juggling comes from Middle English and means to perform tricks.

Knife Throwing

Knife throwing became popular in the 19th century as part of Barnum and Bailey's traveling circus act. The knife used in knife throwing is very different from a common kitchen knife. It has no handle and every edge, except for the point, is dull so that the knife thrower can get a good grip.

Lion Taming

Lion taming happens in the circus and in zoos. A performer will do an act with an already-tamed lion. The first person to tame a lion was the Englishman Thomas Beckerson. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey had a famous success with Gunther Geben-Williams, who tames lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Sword Swallowing

Sword swallowing started in India in 2000 BC. It came to America during the World Columbian Exposition in 1893. A sword swallowing performer must align their throat with their esophagus in just the right way, so that the sword will go down smoothly. If the alignment is off even a quarter of an inch, the performance can turn deadly.

Tightrope Walking

Tightrope walkers balance by putting one foot in front of the other. They wear special leather-sole shoes so that the wire will dig into their foot, giving them some ground to stand on. There are five different styles of tightrope walking. The pole the performer carries helps his or her balance on the rope.


The trapeze act was popularized in 1867 by a popular song about famous French trapeze artist Jules Leotard. Perhaps the most famous trapeze artist in the world was Alfredo Codona of Mexico whose fame was highest in the 1920's. Trapeze artists do acrobatics in the air alone or with a partner.