I love the circus. The first time I took my infant sons – their chubby faces bathed in multicoloured lights, tiny minds blown – we emerged to find a freak snowstorm had transformed the car park into a hushed, white wonderland, as if the circus had VIP access to the weather. At another circus in a Yorkshire field, a tame fox sat on a shetland pony as it ambled around, occasionally stopping to graze on the straw bales demarcating the ring, and two women of a certain age in flesh-coloured catsuits, gyrated slowly. They were both amazing. I devoured Josser, Nell Gifford’s account of running away to join the circus, and dream of doing the same; a life of sawdust and greasepaint, not spreadsheets and Google docs.
But the circus doesn’t need a writer, so what could I do? I’m as supple as an ironing board and recently managed to put my back out chopping apples, so acrobatics and feats of strength are out. I can’t be a clown either because I’m not funny, as readers often remind me.
The Cyr wheel seems promising: it’s a human-sized hoop into which a person inserts themselves, then performs stunning, gravity-defying movements. The apparatus was created in the 1990s by Canadian circus artist Daniel Cyr, though it builds on the much older, more hamster-adjacent “German Wheel”, apparently.
I watch videos of men and women making Cyr wheels do extraordinarily graceful things and, inexplicably, think: I could do that. Despite notoriously poor balance and lack of athleticism, my only concern for some reason is what happens to my fingers when the wheel goes upside down – won’t I squash them? It turns out there is no danger of that.
Things start badly with my Cyr session when I get lost and end up on a potato farm. A furious woman accosts me. “You thought you’d find a circus? Here? What on earth were you thinking?” When I do locate “Circus Stu” in his rehearsal space, he is much nicer. Stuart was an amateur enthusiast until redundancy from his day job in computing encouraged him to take his hobby full-time as Circus Skills York. He is living that circus dream, albeit in a rain-lashed barn with me today, which is no one’s dream. He is wearing his ringmaster outfit, which I appreciate enormously.
My wheel is big, blue, heavy, and apparently very expensive: a basic Cyr wheel starts at £500, a fancy one can set you back £1,500. We start with a static balance on the rim of this luxe hula hoop, lifting one foot at a time. So far, so manageable. The next step is spinning the wheel from the ground. Cyr is as much decorative show craft as stunts, Stuart explains: it’s extremely physical (uh-oh) so a routine traditionally includes balletic, slower movements, to allow the performer to get their breath back. “Rest the wheel on your palm,” says Stuart, “and just guide it gently.”
I enjoy this – the weight of the wheel, the swooping sensation – but at the next stage, when I’m supposed to lead the wheel round in a circle like a pony, building momentum, things fall apart. “Keep your left hand still and stay at the back of the wheel,” Stuart keeps saying, as I race ahead again and again, dragging it with my left hand.
Glossing over my incompetence, Stuart gets me to let go. The wheel draws lazy, mesmerising parabolas as it drops, and I need to jump in, then sit down. Stuart demonstrates, nimbly, then I have a go and wimp out three times. Getting the balance between height and speed is tricky – I’m scared I will catch my foot and faceplant. If this sounds pathetic, rest assured it looks even worse: I’m just stepping into a huge hoop. But when I manage it, the rush is exhilarating. The reverse – sliding under the wheel as it starts to settle on the ground – is even more nerve-racking: I risk taking 13kg of Ukrainian aluminium on the head. “I’m scared!” I whimper, dithering as the wheel accelerates, but eventually slide under triumphantly in the nick of time, Indiana Jones-style.
Buoyed, I have a go at the main event: spinning round. The aim is to create enough momentum for a stable spin, then hold your nerve as the wheel revolves with you on board. I try a “skate start” – pedalling with one foot – and a sort of twisting, treading start, and fail at both, repeatedly. When I do manage to get moving, I barely manage a quarter revolution before getting scared and falling off. Mainly I just stand in my wheel like a baffled Leonardo Vitruvian Man.
Stuart, whose patience is saintly, tries various approaches to get me moving, both technical (“Arms at 10 and two, try putting your foot a bit higher, make sure you really go for the spin”) and mystical (“Be one with the wheel”). I really enjoy it when he demonstrates his impressive, stomach-churning skills to encourage me, but my limbs and brain refuse to cooperate. We finally have a minor breakthrough when Stuart puts on some rousing music: I’m sufficiently galvanised to manage a full, if erratic, revolution, before wimping out. “Go with it! Go with it!” he urges. You need to stay in the axis of the leaning wheel to keep up the momentum – but I’m just too chicken.
I expected to be spinning upside down by now: I’m the circus equivalent of those men who think they can take a point off Serena Williams. As the angry potato farmer said, what on earth was I thinking? Cyr wheel is huge fun, but I’m not sure it’s my discipline. “If you’d like to come back, we could try something with fire?” Stuart offers rashly. Fire – now we’re talking.