BIG READ: Take a leap of faith and run away with the modern circus

Reporter Millie Salkeld tries her hand at aerial circus skills with Top Banana Circus 'Picture: Duncan Shepherd (180340)
Reporter Millie Salkeld tries her hand at aerial circus skills with Top Banana Circus 'Picture: Duncan Shepherd (180340)

SILLY clowns, fire-eaters and exotic animals performing impressive tricks are the images conjured up in my head when someone mentions the circus.

It harks back to a time without endless scrolling through social media to fill your summer days but awaiting the big red and white tent coming to your town which would ensure a night of entertainment with friends and more cotton candy than you can shake a stick out.

But the massively popular movie, The Greatest Showman with Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron and Zendaya released at the end of last year has captured a new audience giving the circus a new lease of life and skill workshops and contemporary circuses are popping up all over the country.

With classes in aerial hoop, trapeze and juggling, Top Banana Circus in Portsmouth has it all for those wanting to run away to the circus for an hour or two.

Originally started as a community project, Top Banana Circus was created as a programme for troublesome youths to use their energy and time productively while learning new skills, gaining confidence and making friends.

The project had to be shut down after a year as the charity behind it closed down but administrator Melanie Stow was one of four directors who stepped up to keep the project going as a community not for profit organisation.

Melanie says: 'I was an administrator for the youth scheme and we had a great cohort of young people who had picked up all these skills and we did some events and went to venues and when that had to shut down, we really wanted to keep it going as people seemed to get so much out of it. 

'So we now run regular classes for adults and children with ground based skills and aerial hoop, silks and trapeze and our team is fantastic and teach the classes with such enthusiasm.'

Melanie and her team want to allow people to learn new skills and meet new people.

She says: 'The overall aim of the circus is to establish a community circus organisation in Portsmouth and have as many people in the city getting active, trying something new and making community connections.'

Since The Greatest Showman, Melanie has received more enquiries about trapeze lessons - I myself got the chance to swing upside down gracefully, I hope!

Melanie says: 'We have had more enquiries since the film because people love it but I think everyone is always in awe of what circus people can do and want to give it a go and perhaps the film has given them the nudge to get involved.'

Children's and adults classes are run regularly with a host of enthusiastic instructors who want you to do well (and not fall on your head!). 

One of the Top Banana Circus instructors, Jack Shepherd, adds: 'I really like the ethics and aims of the company and it is a pleasure to come to work and support the community.'
Jack, 28, and fellow instructor Dani Macleod have been working for the company for nearly two years and run aerial trapeze classes.

Dani, also 28, says: 'I think for some people who come along it just that urge to try something different and many are surprised by what they can do and then they can build on those skills.

'I suppose there is a natural ability in terms of flexibility in your body and hips especially but that can be worked on and everyone can achieve something.'

Jack and Dani perform trapeze when the circus goes to events such as Victorious Festival and local fun days.

Melanie says: 'We performed at Victorious Festival last year and we are doing it again this year which is exciting and I think that when people see us at such events that generates interest as well.

'We also recently did our own independent performance supported by Arts Council England and from that some of the parents that came to see their children then saw the adults and thought I want to give that a go to.'

Mum-of-two Lucy Barlow joined the adult's trapeze class for the first time after being inspired by her kids who go along to the children's sessions.

The 40-year-old says: 'I like anything that gets me active and is more interesting to do than the gym.

'My two boys love coming along and I made a deal with them that they get to do the class and then have an hour on their tablets whilst I do the adults' class as a single mum where I go they go so it is great to have a circus that is so accommodating.'

Like many mothers, Lucy spoke about how hard it is to get kids off their devices and out to do exercise.

The yoga teacher says: 'All parents know that getting kids to be active when they could just sit inside on computers and whatever else is difficult but circus skills is something that sparks interest because it is so different and I know that the instructors can keep them safe.

'They really encourage them to be creative in their movements and explore what they can do with their new skills but in a safe environment and then mum gets to have a go upside down.'

Lucy was just one of the brave adults to step out of her comfort zone but many are are concerned about getting involved.  

Melanie says: 'For a lot of adults they have not been upside down since they were a kid and so that can be quite scary but I think once people get over that initial fear they surprise themselves and in a few weeks  they are standing on the high bar, doing handstands and other tricks.'              

So if you fancy picking up some new skills and turning your world upside down perhaps it is time to run away to the circus.      

Millie runs away with the circus

When my boss told me I was being sent away to the circus I thought I was being fired.

Don't worry, I was allowed back to the office after my brief stint as a trapeze artist.

I was not sure what to expect when I turned up at Top Banana Circus at St Luke's Church in Greetham Street, Portsmouth. 

But I didn't have time to think about it before I was upside down perfecting the gazelle move –  although not as gracefully as instructor Dani.

What was great about the class was the speed in which we went through moves while building up a repertoire. At the end I had more confidence about being upside down, five feet in the air.

Trapeze workshops are way more fun than your average gym session but be prepared for your entire body to hurt for the next week!