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Little Big Top

'Thank you for generating employment with your visit' reads a handwritten notice in blue marker pen at the exit to the big top. Not many have read that notice lately. After several weeks of rain, public apathy and just plain bad luck Mario Salazar and his circus are down to their last pesos. 'What should we do?' he asks somewhat angrily, thinking of the nine mouths he has to feed. 'Should we go out onto the street and start robbing people?'

Mario is the owner of Jhon Danyer Circus, one of around a dozen small circuses that wander the poor barrios of the Colombian city of Medellín. Pitching their tents on small plots of waste ground, they charge 1500 pesos per adult (around 50 British pence - a little less than the price of a litre of milk hereabouts) and 1000 pesos per child to see a performance. One would expect that the public would come flocking, but times are difficult and, sat nightly before their TV screens, the people have become more 'sophisticated'. For some the little circuses are merely circos malucos (rubbish circuses). So, like trawlers wandering the oceans in search of shoals of fish, the circuses must ply the city's valley sides in search of custom.

The circuses are families, and some have been in the business for generations. In Jhon Danyer Mario is both clown and hypnotist. His two eldest sons, Jhon Esteven and Daniel, form the backbone of the business. They perform balancing acts, the high wire, trapeze and clowning, where their little brother Yerferson also helps out. Luisa Fernanda is Yasuri, the contortionist, part of the family since her 'adoption' by the Salazars when she and her sister were infants.

In Sombrillita Circus, the owner William is the clown while his wife sometimes dances with her boa constrictors, and their 10-year-old daughter performs contortions. At the same circus Beatrice will occasionally balance on a chair perched upon beer bottles and pass through a hoop ringed with knives, but more commonly she sells snacks whilst her four children contort, juggle, balance, trapeze, and clown with their father.

The children of the cirqueros start out balancing hoops, bending and contorting or appearing with the clowns, then graduate onto balancing upon stacked chairs and finally the aerial acts: the trapeze, the ladder, and the high wire. But as the art of the circus performer depends upon the body, opportunities narrow as the body ages and breaks. In the end, unless you are the owner, there is little left to do but rely on your wit and your tongue and become a clown. Remaining in the circus then entails pulling your weight, or as Mario puts it: 'If you eat in the circus then you work in the circus.'
It is a close-knit world, one of enduring friendships as well as bitter rivalries. It may not be Cirque du Soleil but in the poor barrios of Medellín the circus has the added attraction that you can always buy popcorn, crisps, toffee apples or soda from the knife thrower, clown or trapeze artist during the interval. They may not shine so brightly, but in the 50 pence circuses of Medellín you can always mix with the stars.
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