Book Review – DIY Circus Lab by Jackie Davis

DIY Circus Lab is a new release from Quarry Books, written by veteran circus educator Jackie Leigh Davis.

Billed as a “family-friendly guide for juggling, balancing, clowning, and circus-making,”[1] this beautifully laid out book is an accessible, inclusive, and wholly comprehensive classroom for the young circus learner.

Davis has been working in circus education for 23 years, and this book is clearly written by an expert in the field.  Though she and I have been in similar orbits in the circus world, we only met last summer at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC. There, she was a member of the Circus Arts Education Team assembled by our national museum (that’s right, guys, this book was written by a national treasure!).

One of the core tenants of this book is the accessibility of the circus arts – that it’s an art to be enjoyed by anyone.  Following that thought, the book is a series of DIY activities and “how-to” skill workshops, offering low- and no-cost solutions to circus equipment and how to use them.  DIY Circus Lab offers instructions to build juggling equipment and slack ropes, the basics of human pyramids and partner acrobatics, as well as improv games and advice on act creation.  “These are all things that you can do in your backyard, place of worship, or with a school club.  Just grab this stuff and try it,” said Davis in an interview with the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, this attitude of “anyone can do it!” courses through every page of the book.

It’s a book for the beginner – something to help build a child’s love for the circus arts and cultivate an interest in progressing beyond the book’s pages.  The limited technical scope doesn’t stop Davis from talking about the broader context and impact of each skill, however.  The juggling chapter, for example, talks about historical references to juggling – from the etchings on the wall of the Beni Hasan tomb to a Chinese warrior stopping a battle with an impressive display of juggling.  “Now you can join the huge international family of jugglers,” the author proclaims before starting the lesson: the cascade with scarves and balls, as well as a few simpler exercises for younger learners.

The appendices at the end are as thorough as the book itself, which should come as no surprise – Davis is a “circademic,” combining her love of circus arts and youth development with a Masters’ of Education from Harvard and PhD studies at the University of British Columbia.  In the final pages of the book, the author unpacks the interdisciplinary nature of circus: business, community, music, science, and more; describes the history of youth- and social-circus around the world; and exhaustively lists youth circus companies around the US (there’s probably one near you!)

The book culminates in several pages of additional resources – places to buy nicer equipment, resources for learning additional skills, and connecting with other circus enthusiasts.  (A few recommendations for “Further Study” in juggling?  Dancey’s Encyclopaedia of Ball Juggling, Finnigan’s Complete Juggler, and an online tour of David Cain’s Museum of Juggling History.)

The icing on the cake?  She even mentions the International Jugglers’ Association and our eZine – and puts our apostrophe in the right place.

This book would be a perfect gift for any youngster in a juggler’s life or a wonderful addition to any school or community center library. (Have a niece or nephew whose parents just “don’t get” what we do at our conventions? Time to subvert!)

To summarize – this is an excellent book, expertly done, and deserves a place on the bookshelf of any child interested in exploring the circus arts.

DIY Circus Lab is available from Amazon in print and ebook formats.  (Buying there?  Don’t forget to use Amazon Smile, so a portion of the sale goes to the IJA!)

Nota bene – The author of this review was provided a copy of the book for review by Quantum Press.


Thom Wall

Thom is a professional variety performer, currently touring Europe with Cirque du Soleil's "TOTEM." Thom holds a BA in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Washington University in St Louis and an MS in Nonprofit Arts Administration from Drexel University's Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. When he's not performing, he coaches juggling online and writes about his travels at .

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