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Circus Science

“How do they do that?” is a question frequently murmured by spectators, as circus artists appear to defy gravity and other earthly limitations.

Of course, circus artists cannot “defy” gravity any more than the rest of us, but they can learn how to use gravity and other principles of science to their advantage. Over the centuries, many circus arts have relied on a thorough understanding of biology, chemistry, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, physics, and more. Circus artists and related professionals may instinctively understand many of these scientific connections, but they are rarely introduced or explained for the general public.

Circus performers, riggers, and prop and equipment designers also use scientific principles to keep both artists and spectators safe. The synergy of science and skill is now routinely taught as part of circus training, but some principles are understood innately by the complex sensory machine that is the human body.

At the Folklife Festival, the Florida Center for Partnerships for Arts-Integrated Teaching (PAInT), based at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, worked with artists from the Circus Arts Conservatory and educators from the Smithsonian to provide experiential lessons about circus science.

Through demonstrations and hands-on activities, kids learned how universal laws of science and engineering not only enable and explain so many circus arts and skills, but also affect the design and operation of many circus-related props, equipment, and performance spaces.

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