Performing as a circus acrobat

 21 July 2011

Lucy Francis performs exciting circus aerial and acrobatic acts around the world. She is also Director of AirCraft Circus Academy, based at the Thames-Side Studios in London.

Lucy maintains her fitness by working on ropes and silks.
Lucy maintains her fitness by working on ropes and silks.

Aircraft Circus Academy runs a range of hugely-successful courses in circus arts for both children and adults, which Lucy coordinates. They also perform circus shows and provide performers for corporate events. Lucy is head trainer for the performers.

Starting in acrobatics

Lucy originally trained as a gymnast and dancer, and admits to being a rather hyperactive child. At the age of six her mother sent Lucy to gymnastics classes, with the intention of calming her rather lively daughter.

"If you are prepared to work really hard at circus performance, then you have the chance to make it."

“The classes had the desired effect! I loved the gym classes and by the time I was twelve I was training every night after school at King’s Lynn Gymnastics Club in Norfolk.

"At this stage neither my parents, nor I, thought that this might lead to a career as a circus performer. My Mum had wanted me to do a ‘sensible’ job, like working in a bank.”

Before becoming a circus performer Lucy achieved considerable success as a sports acrobat and diving champion. She was the British Masters Diving Champion for both 1m and 3m spring board in 1998 and won a gold medal in 1999.

Getting into circus performance

During the 1990s Lucy was a national competitor for sports acrobatics and tumbling. She still found time for GCSEs and A levels, progressing to Leeds Metropolitan University after leaving school, and graduating in Sports and Exercise Science.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my degree, but I saw an advert for 90 new aerial performers to train and then perform in the Millennium Dome. My application was successful, and I completed eighteen months paid training before performing three shows a day for the whole of the year 2000.”

The work at the Millennium Dome provided the lucky break Lucy needed to launch her circus career. She went on to work for the Flying Dudes and performed numerous successful aerial and flying trapeze acts during the coming years. Three years ago Lucy joined AirCraft Circus Academy.

Working as a circus performer

“People’s perceptions of circus performers are often quite inaccurate. Most people have no idea of the months of work and physical preparation that precedes a performance.

"Circus performing is very hard work, and there are 10 bad gigs for every good one. Performances are often outside, which means working in all weathers, whether sunshine or rain.

"It is very difficult to earn a living as a self-employed circus performer. Most people have a sideline, such as teaching or making and selling costumes.”

"To be successful you need to train your body like an athlete."

Lucy loves the buzz she gets during a performance, and enjoys working with like-minded people. Overseas travel is also a perk of the job.

“I have travelled to so many places including Kenya, Copenhagen, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. The overseas work is usually for corporate clients, and so we get to stay in a nice hotel. There is usually about half a day free for sightseeing.”

Fitting a career around her family is something Lucy now does, after the arrival of her daughter Bina four years ago. Clearly her mother’s daughter, Bina is taking an active role in AirCraft Circus Academy, having already performed in three shows.

Recovering from injury

One of the main challenges facing any circus performer is injury. Lucy understands more about this than most – at the age of 25, she faced a potentially life-changing situation. Lucy broke her neck in an accident during a routine practice-session on the trampoline and faced an agonising 72 hours in hospital. The doctors were not sure that she would ever walk again.

“As I lay in my hospital bed I decided I would be totally happy if I never did acrobatics again. But the surgery was thankfully successful, and I spent the next three months in bed at home, and a further nine months in rehabilitation.

"During this time I realised I was addicted to the adrenalin rush that acrobatics and circus performing gives me. Circus is my drug.”

Not deterred by this accident, and with several other broken limbs and A&E visits along the way, Lucy bravely returned to the career she loves.

Teaching circus skills

"It is very difficult to earn a living as a self-employed circus performer. Most people have a sideline, such as teaching or making and selling costumes."

After recovering from her accident Lucy moved into teaching, as she was initially unable to return to performance. She taught on the unique BA Hons Degree at Circus Space in London.

“I was teaching for about 45 hours a week which. Though very rewarding, it was also demanding as I was also re-establishing my career as a performer. At present I am taking a break from the teaching, to leave time and energy for all my other work.

"We perform our own shows at AirCraft Circus Academy, either at the Thames-Side Studios or at venues in the UK or abroad.

"I train the performers and choreograph the shows, and also provide performers for corporate events or television advertising. One of our corporate clients is Wella, for whom we performed four different acts for their Hair Show.”

Managing the finances of a creative organisation

Lucy is one of four directors who run AirCraft Circus Academy. Lucy handles the financial side of the company single-handed, working from an office area in the corner of her living room.

“I look after all the company accounts, which means sending invoices and paying all our bills. I have learnt everything on-the-job, as I don’t have any formal training in accounts. My A-level in Business Studies was a great help.

"Being really organised and methodical is important, and I find the late evening between 10pm and 2am provides the peace and quite I need to concentrate without interruptions.

"There is a lot to keep up with, as AirCraft Circus Academy is growing rapidly and becoming really successful. Running a business like this and surviving difficult financial times is hard work and very challenging. We don’t receive a penny of government or council funding.

Advice for circus performance

  • With circus performing you get out of it what you put in. If you are prepared to work really hard then you have the chance to make it.
  • The circus world is very small and highly competitive. Even highly skilled graduates in circus skills find it difficult or impossible to find work.
  • To be successful you need to train your body like an athlete and practise constantly.

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