Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Marginal Body and Bourgeois Cosmology: The British Acrobat in Reference to Sport

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Marginal Body and Bourgeois Cosmology: The British Acrobat in Reference to Sport

Article excerpt

While watching the performance of travelling circuses in Britain in the late 1970s, an outsider would have been struck by the similarity between circus acrobatics and performances within gymnastics' halls. The circus trapeze performance bears great resemblance to gymnasts' rings and trapeze exercises. Likewise, the circus trampoline act is similar to the gymnast's trampoline routines; wire walking in the circus (especially low wire walking) is similar to balancing on a beam; the circus spring board act is similar to gymnastics; and the tumbler's tricks in the circus are similar to the gymnast's ground exercises.

Apparent as these similarities have seemed to an outsider's eye, they were, however, entirely irrelevant to the local public seated in the circus tent. For them, circus and sport are worlds apart.

Sport has long been a serious matter in Britain. Thousands of people take part as amateurs, and millions as spectators. Its part in the total consumer expenditure is constantly growing (Hargreaves, 1986: 132), as is the amount of newspaper space and time on radio and television devoted to sports (Hargreaves, ibid., chs. 7, 8; Mason, 1988: 46-58). For many people, sport is "one of the central, if not the central source of identification, meaning and gratification in their life" (Dunning, 1986: 205).

Circus is different. The circus performance itself is confined to isolated, esoteric travellers, and is not regularly practiced by others. The circus is hardly presented in newspaper columns and only seldom on television programs. A circus show will be attended perhaps once a year when it comes to town, and is watched in the already traditional television program on Christmas morning.

That a circus performance can sometimes be combined with elements of sport is known to the public from their acquaintance with Eastern European performances. "Russian" athletes and acrobats visited London in 1979, and other Eastern European gymnastics on television also integrated some circus elements. However, these hybrids were considered "Russian" and experienced as alien. The circus' prominence is indeed in children's book and toys and is a subject of folklore as well as a metaphor in daily language.

Circus is considered as irrelevant to sport not only by the public in the circus tent, but also by the circus travelers themselves. In the "Jimmy Brown Circus" with which I travelled, sport was not considered a threat. The circus performers were sure that they were playing to a different public. In addition, there was not even one case of a circus losing a performer to sport and no sportsperson trying to join performing circus travellers in the late 1970s.

Given the similarities between acrobatics and sport, what is it that makes circus acrobatics so distinct and apart from sport in the eyes of the British public, and what is it that differentiates the world of the acrobat from that of the gymnast? And, given the variability of circus framings (e.g., the Russian example), what are the wider contextual conditions in terms of which the separation of circus acrobatics from sport and from the rest of society in Britain can be understood?

The first purpose of this paper is to contribute to a long-ignored field of circus etnography and the analysis of the significance of circus body presentation. I illustrate most of my argument through one acrobatic act presented in Jimmy Brown's Circus in Britain during the late 1970s. Sport (the body engaged in gymnastics in particular) is suggested as a comparative reference due to similarities in performance. Beyond a description of the acrobating body and its uniqueness, this paper alludes to body presentation as a perspective for its context, that is, the codes and processes by which its significances are reproduced.

An attempt at approaching context through circus has been suggested by Stally-brass and White (1986). Drawing on Bouissac (1976, 1982) and on Bakhtin (1984), circus is interpreted within Bakhtin's concept of the world of the marketplace and the carnivalesque (and see also Featherstone, 1992). …

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