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Circus Science

Physics is what powers the beautiful circus machine, even if the audience is completely oblivious.

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, Image credit: Publicity poster of aeralist MissZelia, ca. 1890-1900 (NYPL | Public Domain)

In 1887, 14-year-old Rossa Richter, known as Zazel, made headlines as the first human cannonball at the Royal Aquarium in London. Over 130 years later, in a small Indiana town, another teenager is making circus waves. 

Peru, Indiana, “The Circus Capital of the World,” was once winter quarters to many famous circuses. The town seems to have been consumed by the circus since Benjamin Wallace set up shop for his show in the 1880s. Women have served many roles under Peru’s proverbial big top, and many stayed long after the circus left, including early 20th century animal tamer Mabel Stark and world-renowned aerialist Micky King, who retired in Peru and went on to train flyers in the early days of the amateur circus. Today, Tina Miser, Peru circus and Ringling Bros. alum, still calls Peru home while traveling the country to perform her human cannonball act.

But never before had Peru seen a female catcher in the flying trapeze. Not until Courtlynn Crowe, Peru High School Senior and five year flyer in the town’s amateur circus (a summer tradition for more than 60 years), decided she wanted to give catching a try. In an interview with Jared Keever of the Peru Tribune, Crowe’s mother, Tricia Crowe, said her daughter “gets something in her head and makes it happen somehow.” 

Hep!” Crowe calls, steadily swinging from her knees. The raucous crowd is now still, holding a communal breath as the flyer releases, twisting through the air to grasp the wrists of the upside-down Crowe. A cloud of chalk dust dissipates as the two swing together once before the flyer twists again, thrown back to the swinging bar and up to the platform. The crowd collectively exhales and cheers. This is history. But Croew is the first ever female fly catcher. A male fly catcher might be able to rely solely on muscle power to make a catch, but Crowe finds success in her technique by marrying study and skill with strength.

Leslie Murphy trains Crowe and the Peru Amateur Circus trapeze team and was once a flyer on the team herself. She credits Crowe’s attitude and work ethic, along with her athletic skills, toward her success as catcher. All of which combine to help Crowe develop a technique to master catching. In an email interview with Lady Science, Murphy admits that she didn’t think much of the science and physics behind flying trapeze until she began training, “I had to envision angles and speed of the flyer and the catcher and the power behind the trick…there really is so much involved that I took for granted as a flyer.” Today Murphy and her flyers rely a lot on video to check technique and make changes in a trick. The flying trapeze, in its most basic element, is a pendulum. A mass (the flyer) on the end of a string (the trapeze bar), with energy—in this case potential and kinetic energy, constantly changing with the swing. 

Crowe just began her senior year of high school and hasn’t yet delved deep into scholarly physics, but trapeze has given her a hands-on opportunity to understand the role of physics in real life. In an email interview, Crowe explains flying trapeze has “everything to do with pendulums, Newton’s law, and gravity.” Timing the catch is the whole point of the trick, and although it looks like athletics, there is an exact science behind timing a trapeze catch. Crowe says that “due to centrifugal force, the flyer is heaviest, or more difficult to hold on to, at the bottom of the swing, while the very top of the swing—when there’s that split second of virtually weightlessness—is when it’s a good time to re-grip if it was a bad catch.”

Athletics are important though. In order to make the catch, the catcher must be able to endure the force. Croew acknowledges catchers need a baseline of muscle, which she built through gymnastics, circus, and being a four-sport varsity athlete. Catchers need to be strong enough to hold the flyers, as well as the additional weight added by gravity and centrifugal force, and then be able to throw them back to the bar. She made adjustments to her technique, as any catcher would depending on the flyer they are partnered with. Since she isn’t as tall as a male catcher might be, she realized she needed to let go of the flyer a little sooner so they would travel towards the bar rather than straight up. If a catcher can understand how to tweak their technique and take advantage of the swing of the cradle, they can use that to build momentum, rather than relying solely on muscle power. 

As the flyers swing off the platform and throw a trick to the catcher, they build momentum to get where they need to go. Murphy says that Crowe was a beautiful flyer, but she also had a lot of power, which was in needed in an amateur circus catcher. When she decided she wanted to catch, her experience as a flyer was extremely helpful in understanding positions, timing, and momentum—she just had to get used to hanging upside down. 

Crowe is not the first woman to blur gender roles in the circus, but there haven’t been too many female fly catchers. On the other side of the world, Spenser Inwood of Australia has a background that mirrors Crowe’s. Both began in gymnastics and circus at a young age, and they continued adding more physical sports. Inwood moved to catching and other acrobatic and strong-woman acts with Circus Oz. Sally Bennett wrote in the Herald Sun that Inwood adds a feminine touch to the art of catching. “The nurturing approach may be different, but the strength and skill required to get the job done is the same,” Bennett says. Inwood loves encouraging women and girls, telling Bennett,“Women are emotionally strong and physically strong and capable and we need to continue to celebrate that.” In an interview with Stephanie Dickson in Mama Mia, Inwood speaks of the pushback she has received, notably from other women, and how she wants to change these kinds of attitudes around gender roles.

Crowe knows there are unspoken rules regarding gender roles, but she has proven that those can be overcome. “Catch A Flying Star,” produced by Randall King, on Indiana Wesleyan University’s WIWU did a segment on Crowe over the summer. She says she loves helping the younger girls in the acts she did as a child. She hopes she is opening doors, but mostly, she hopes her example can inspire anyone, boy or girl, to do anything they want if they work for it. She might be the first girl in Peru to catch on the trapeze team, but she doesn’t expect to be the last. 

Circus is based in science, artistry, athleticism, and imagination. The circus might seem magical, all shimmering under the lights, but like everything in life, it is really just a lot of matter and energy bouncing around, or in the case of trapeze, being thrown around. Physics is what powers the beautiful circus machine, even if the audience is completely oblivious. 

Susan Salaz is a freelance journalist in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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