Heroines of the Circus – The Big Cat Trainer

29 Dec

Mabel Stark and Leopard - 1915

“For more than twenty-five years, I have been breaking, working, and training tigers. I have been clawed and slashed and chewed until there is hardly an inch of my body unscarred by tooth or nail. But I love these big cats as a mother loves her children, even when they are the most wayward. They are killers because they know their own strength. They can be subdued by never conquered, except by love. And that is the secret of all successful animal training. I have learned it at the risk of my life. . . “ Mabel Stark

One of seven children, Mabel was born Mary Haynie in 1889 Tennessee. Her parents were farmers who tragically died leaving her an orphan in her teens. She went to live with her aunt and after a short period spent working as a nurse she discovered the circus initially working as a horseback rider until she fell in love with the big cats.

She started working with the big cat trainer Louis Roth who went on to become her first husband (She married a further five times) and she became a tiger trainer in the ring. At the age of 27, she was presenting the show’s major tiger act and became known as the world’s first female big cat trainer. As well as working with tigers and panthers, she raised a sickly tiger cub training him to perform a wrestling act with her where she put her face inside his mouth.

Training big cats was clearly not without it’s dangers though. In 1928, Mabel lost her footing in a muddy arena which resulted in her being attacked by her tigers receiving numerous injuries which included a hole in her shoulder.

In her description of this mauling Mabel wrote, “Sheik was right behind me, and caught me in the left thigh, tearing a two-inch gash that cut through to the bone and almost severed my left leg just above the knee. . . I could feel blood pouring into both my boots, but I was determined to go through with the act. . .(Zoo) jumped from his pedestal and seized my right leg, jerking me to the ground.”

“As I fell, Sheik struck out with one paw, catching the side of my head, almost scalping me… Zoo gave a deep growl and bit my leg again. He gave it a shake, and planting both forefeet with his claws deep in my flesh, started to chew… I wondered into how many pieces I would be torn… Most of all I was concerned for the audience… I knew it would be a horrible sight if my body was torn apart before their eyes. And all my tigers would be branded as murderers and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in narrow cages instead of being allowed the freedom of the big arena and the pleasure of working. That thought gave me strength to fight.”


Mabel was thankfully rescued from this attack by co-trainer Terrell Jacobs and was incredibly back at work in a matter of weeks albeit with a walking stick and swathes of bandages.

Said Mabel, “I always blame myself—not the tiger, if something goes wrong. Maybe it is an ulcerated tooth, a sore paw, a just a grudge against the world for no good reason at all that has upset the cat. . .Then the fun starts.”

Mabel later claimed that she had been attacked by Zoo and Sheik because the cats had not been fed or watered that day. “No wonder,” wrote Miss Stark, “I literally had to battle for my life.” Other injuries were to follow over the years.

Mabel toured around America, Europe and Japan with her act but after a successful career that lasted almost sixty years she was fired from her position at Jungleland at Thousand Oaks when the boss took a dislike to her. Soon after she left, one of the tigers escaped and was shot. Mabel was extremely upset at the loss of the animal and felt that if she had been there the cat would have been returned safely retaining it’s life.

Just three months later on April 20, 1968 at the age of 78, Mabel committed suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates.

“Out slink the striped cats, snarling and roaring, leaping at each other or at me. It’s a matchless thrill, and life without it is not worth while to me. I hope each new season until my number is up will find me shouting, ‘Let them come!” Mabel Stark “Hold That Tiger” (by Mabel Stark, as told to Gertrude Orr, published in 1938.)


Circus 2012

24 Dec


I’ve really enjoyed 2012 as a great year for Circus performance. CircusFest at the Roundhouse gave us excellent performances from Cirkus Cirkör and Cirque Mandingue. Professor Vanessa’s Wondershow was also great bar the fact that there was too much going on and long queues making it impossible to see all of the thrilling sights of the original vintage sideshow booths (Many of them from the 1930s – 1950s) and the acts in the centre of the ring – which sometimes happened simultaneously. This caused a great deal of disappointment, leaving you feeling as if you hadn’t quite seen the full show even though everything was just a few short steps away… I’m still lamenting the fact that I never got to see  Electra, the 27,000 volt girl!

I was lucky enough to attend Piccadilly Circus Circus which was pretty much announced only a day before it happened. It was part of the ‘Surprises’ programme that was being presented by the Mayor of London as part of the London 2012 Olympic Festival. The day consisted of 143 performances of 48 different acts by 33 companies which took place across 15 spaces on the streets of and surrounding Piccadilly, with 247 performers from around the world. It was pure unadulterated circus on every corner. I saw some of the most *magical* performances by circus companies/performers who included: CirkVOST, Circolombia, Cie Mauvais Esprits, Pirates of the Carabina, The Circus Space and Eric and Alma. If any of these companies are performing near you, drop everything, don’t ask any questions, just GO SEE THEM!!!


I heard that it rains a lot in London but…… Feathers?

I was like a kid in a sweet shop and literally stayed from morning until night for the grand finale. Les Studios de Cirque were the company chosen to perform the grand finale ‘Place Des Anges’. The performance centered around an army of angels all dressed in white huddled high above the masses looking down at us from their lofty perch (Which used to be Virgin Records/Tower Records).

After lighting a flame they descended from the heavens on zip wires (In a series of innovative ways) wafting joy and hypoallergenic feathers down to earth. As the night progressed the feathers fell hard and fast until in some areas the audience were knee high in feathers – cue impromtu feather fights and rolling around on newly soft pavements. I’ve never seen such looks of ecstasy on people’s faces. Grown adults transformed into children, laughing whilst throwing feathers in the air.

It was an awesome end to a wonderful day. Thanks to the Mayor and Crying Out Loud. Truly stunning. I hope that this isn’t the last time that we see the streets of London transformed into a fully functioning (proper) circus…

Cantina from Australia performed at the Southbank. The show was performed in a mirrored marquee – a 1920s Spiegeltent to be exact. The atmosphere in the tent was dark and smouldering with a faint hint of debauchery in the air and there was a real effort to show the audience even us circus diehards something different – circus with a dark, deadly and passionate twist.

One of the performers Chelsea McGuffin, walked perilously across a tightrope in six inch high heels and then later trampled a musclebound acrobat in the same said heels, another walked and handbalanced across broken glass and one teetered across a row of Champagne bottle tops. Henna Kaikula was the contortionist who you watched through your fingers. The highlight for me had to be the corde lisse artist Mozes who had earlier performed a naked magic trick. He returned fully clothed to perform a gripping rope act which ended with him seemingly hanging himself. It was a heart in the mouth performance – superb.

I also caught some other great circus performances on the Southbank at The National’s ‘Inside Out’/’Watch This Space’. Pyrotechnical madness from The Burnt Out Punks, twirling, flexible fun from Hoop La La and performances from Circus Space’s degree students.

2012 also saw Ockham’s Razor beautiful new show ‘Not Until We Are Lost’ which you can see at The Arts Depot in April 2013 so I won’t say too much about it except enjoy….

I’m already looking forward to circus in 2013. Can’t wait!!


21 Dec


Circus artists delight and amaze us with their bodies. We admire their strength and we admire their flexibility.

Strength for many of us is relatively easy to obtain, you just have to make sure that you train regularly several times a week and you have to focus on your conditioning (Strength training). However even going to class once a week will see you developing your strength even if it is at a much slower rate. Flexibility on the other hand? This you have to fight for….

Many people who train in aerial arts for ‘fun’ will have a certain amount of strength from impressive to not impressive but it’s rare to come across a recreational aerialist who has the flexibility of your average professional unless they happen to be dancers. Yet having this flexibility and being able to perform exquisite front splits or a divine backbend can help to bring a routine to life especially on the lyra/aerial hoop where flexibility is expected.

So how do you achieve super bendinesss? Effective flexibility training is rarely offered for evening students at circus schools. I say effective because it’s never usually enough or ‘hands on’ to help you achieve your splits. I was actually advised to seek out a contortionist for flexibility classes. It took me a while and much research on contortion forums but eventually I did find a teacher and have been taking classes since 2011 which have enabled me to achieve my left and right front splits. My teacher is a world record holding contortionist who is originally from Mongolia and she is truly amazing. It’s a group class but she works with all the students individually helping them to achieve the flexibility at the rate that their body will allow and she gets amazing results. Her students come in as stiff as a board and after some time they emerge as limber as ballerinas.


These classes aren’t a quick fix though. You have to put in the commitment. There are a rare few who after a few of these classes or even immediately achieve their splits but for the majority, flexibility will be much harder to attain so depending on the work that you put in and your body it can take from six months to a year to achieve the splits. So contortion/flexibility classes are the way to go but some words of advice:

  • Make sure that your teacher is qualified. A qualified teacher will understand how far they can ‘push’ your own unique and individual body and they won’t work beyond your range of flexibility.
  • Make sure that your teacher performs a thorough warm up. You do not want to start stretching cold muscles. This will lead to injury/torn muscles and will see you out of all training for months.
  • Generally, it’s better to work with a teacher who has worked through training to achieve their flexibility as opposed to a teacher who is naturally flexible. A teacher who hasn’t had to train to achieve their bendiness won’t have the same understanding of the body that a teacher who has had to train hard will.

Lastly even when you do achieve your splits it can still take time to be able to perform on demand and insert them into your aerial routine so be patient with yourself. You will get there. I did.

Rope me in!

30 Nov


I’ve been training on the trapeze and lyra for a few years now but keen for a change and a challenge I decided to dip a very cautious toe into the world of rope/corde lisse.

I’ve always been in awe of people who train on the rope because let’s face it, it looks terrifyingly hard. Not only does it require brute strength it also requires a high tolerance for pain as the texture of the rope gifts you with all manners of burns, tears and bruises. This is before we even add in all the scary hands free drops. It’s definitely the preserve of the tough skinned kamikaze daredevil…

When I was at school, I can remember the evil sports teacher/crone Miss Miller asking us (A bunch of 11 year olds) to climb a rope without actually teaching us how to do it – an interesting teaching methodology. As you can imagine her method wasn’t a great success.

So it wasn’t until I started taking trapeze classes that I was reintroduced to the dreaded rope where it was used as part of our strength and flexibility building conditioning exercises. I was taught for the very first time how to climb a rope and boy was it hard work trying to haul my tired body upwards whilst holding on with weak kitten arms and a death grip in a desperate attempt to avoid falling off and dying. How I hated my climbing…

But then a strange thing happened. I got stronger and started to look forward to the rope!! Don’t get me wrong, it never got easier, mainly because of the amount of times we had to climb the rope in one class, but I started to actually enjoy it!

So this formed part of my decision making process to push myself by taking rope classes. I also thought that it would mean that I could feel more confident doing work on the trapeze ropes – use all parts of the equipment.

So far the classes have been tough and I have an assortment of rope ‘artwork’ across my body to prove it – particularly the bruise over my right hip which will not go…. I came to rope with pretty limited skills like catchers, hip lock, foot locks, knee drops, girl rests in rope and that’s pretty much it. I’m now being introduced to straddle climbs, hip lock climbs, scissor climbs, salto drops, the propellor and many more…

It’s early days yet and I am frustrated feeling limited in what I currently can/can’t do and I’m trying to overcome my fear – due to two falls in my first class – but I’m getting there and I’m getting stronger so watch this space. I’m won’t say that I love my classes just yet but I’m hanging on in there…. Literally!


26 Jul


I fell from my trapeze a few days ago.

I was performing a relatively simple move so I was really shocked to find myself slipping out of my hold. I still don’t really know exactly what happened but I was upside down and all of a sudden I lost the grip of my left hand and my right leg slipped from the rope. It was pretty much a rapid downward descent from there. In my shock I tried to wildly grasp at the trapeze which meant that I over rotated on the left side of my torso and yanked my head up and around (‘cruunch’) to see what was going on but there was no recovering from the laws of gravity and I landed heavily and awkwardly on my left side – thankfully on a crash mat.

I sprang back up again really quickly wanting to avoid a stop the traffic moment and although I felt a teeny bit sore I got right back on the trapeze. I was fortunately absolutely fine and was thanking God for the crash mats that we use. However, two days later at midday I left home to go to a trapeze class and the minute that I sat on the tube, I felt a dull and aching pain in my left side and difficulty turning my torso. The left side of my neck was also affected and the pain increased throughout the day. I was really shocked because I felt fine for two days and then all of a sudden I felt excruciating pain in my neck and back as a result of this fall.

It’s now three days later and I’ve had a break from the trapeze during which I’ve been trying to move less – turning in my sleep has not been working out for me.

The pain has subsided a little and I feel better which is great but I’ve had more that one moment of panic wondering if the pain would ever go away.

The thing that surprised me the most was how much pain you could be in even when you do land on a crash mat. I’ve fallen on a crash mat before but that time it was flat on my face during an in-class performance and the only injury was to my pride – embarrassed. This time the resulting pain was unexpected and has made me think about crash mats in an entirely different way.

I once asked one of my teachers about the best way to fall and she gave an insightful response which was that there isn’t a correct way to fall. I think she’s right (although there’s probably a physicist somewhere who may argue with this). You don’t want people to think of falling as an alternative option and something that they can do safely. It’s best just to try to ensure that you never fall.

Falling from the trapeze believe it or not is not actually inevitable but for many people who have never practised aerial arts, falling and aerial arts are inextricably linked. That’s where their fear and excitement comes from and that’s why they watch behind their fingers. They believe that there is a high probability that the performer may fall. I’ve even seen numerous students in classes across London freeze and refuse to perform a move or a trick because they are terrified by the ‘thought’ of falling. They have a teacher close to them ready to spot, they may be on a safety line or have the biggest crash mat underneath them but the thought of falling prevents them from going any further.

I’ve not seen many people in any of my classes fall from their equipment. It’s not that common to be honest but when people do we usually take a sharp intake of breath, stop for a moment and ask if they’re ok – it’s all very real and it could so easily be any one of us.

What have I learned form this experience? To fully concentrate especially when I’m doing a move in a new way even if it is a move that I have done hundreds of times over and that falling on a crash mat can be a softer landing but boy it can’t save you from the agony of awkward landings…

Queen of the Circus

24 Jul


Hello my name is Xylia and I’m a circus addict. Well more of an aerial performing addict…

I came to circus by chance. I was part of a dance troupe and was also an avid vertical dance student but I was looking for other skills to add to my repertoire. I heard about circus introduction days that were taking place at a London circus school and I signed up. I tried a variety of different circus skills including the flying trapeze, juggling, stilt walking, acrobalance and tightrope walking but fell in love with the static trapeze – straight away. I put my name on a waiting list and it took a year for me to be be given a place but I have to say that it was really worth the wait. I fell in love instantly.

Some 3 years later and I’m still hung up on circus, fitting in classes around my full-time work. Although my main practice is in static trapeze I have also taken classes in cerceau, corde lisse, silk sling and the swinging trapeze at schools across London which include, The Circus Space, Aircraft Circus (The Hangar), My Aerial Home and Gorilla Circus. I’m not a professional aerialist, I’ve never performed – although I plan to in a low key way very soon – and I feel as if I still have more to learn so that I become better but I’m up for the challenge.

Through my blog I hope to share various tips, history and my expansive love for all things aerial, for all things circus. Maybe I can even tempt a few of you over to the other side with me – the circus side…. See you there!

Photo credit: “Circus Alphabet”, Whitman Tell-A-Tale Book, 1954. Illustrations by Patric Hudson