Flying through the air

A first.

I post Mantitty on the blog.

This is none other than Jules Leotard, who on this day in 1859 performed the first flying trapeze act in Paris, thus revolutionizing the circus. His act lasted twelve minutes in which he turned a somersault in mid-air and jumped from one trapeze to another. A pile of mattresses served as a safety net.

Although he’s not wearing it here, the leotard, which he invented, is named after him. Not a whole lot is known about his life; he was born in Toulouse, France, around 1839, the son of a gymnastics instructor, and as a baby was calmed by being hung upside down. Although his father wanted him to enter the law, young Jules ran away to the circus. He made his debut at the Alhambra Music Hall, London, in 1861, and his New York debut in 1868. He died in 1870 in Spain of smallpox or cholera.

Inspired by Carolyn’s Googlebooks adventures, I went searching for references to Jules Leotard, and found this from Chambers’ 1891 Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts:

Jules Leotard was a splendid specimen of manly beauty—a perfect figure united to a strikingly handsome face, always grave and reposeful.

The story of the great gymnast’s career has seldom been told. A native of Toulouse, in the south of France, young Leotard passed many of his earliest years in the beautiful city of the sunny south. His father kept a swimming-bath, having several skylights that were opened and closed by long ropea. It was young Leotard’s office to open and shut these skylights, and he was in the habit of swinging from one rope to the other, doing so with so much grace and skill as to attract much attention from the visitors to the establishment. His first public appearance was as an amateur at the Municipal Fete. It so happened that among the people who witnessed the performance was the director of the Cirque d’Iimperatrice at Paris. This gentleman was astonished at the skill and grace of the young athlete, and also at the novelty of the performance; and the next morning he made his way to the Leotard swimming baths and had an interview with the father. A few days hence and Jules Leotard set out for Paris. On his arrival in the gay city he was taken to a theatrical costumier, and a gay doublet of crimson velvet and gold spangles was fitted over the snow-white tights he had brought from the country.

“Take it off!” he said to the costumier. “I am not going to play the clown.”

“Take it off ! mon petit, the beautiful doublet ? See how well you look in it—grand, magnificent, superb!”

“Think you so? I’ll never wear spangles like a harlequin.”

“Ah ! mon Dieu ! Eh bien ! mon petit, what is it, then, you will wear? You must have a doublet of some kind.”

“Have you any black velvet?”

A roll of plain black velvet was produced, and out of this material was made the young aspirant’s doublet. And subsequently M. Leotard always wore the simple and elegant dress of a black velvet doublet over snow-white tights ; a dress that served admirably to display the magnificent form of the gymnast. The debut of the young athlete in the Paris arena was a veritable triumph, which was renewed on his first appearance in London. The flying trapeze became the rage, and a whole host of flying trapezists appeared at the music halls, none of whom, however, had the skill and marvellous ease of the master.

And yes, Leotard inspired the song The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, recorded by, among others, Bruce Springsteen.

I think this nineteenth century circus illustration explains why female trapeze acts were so popular.

Have you ever fancied running away to the circus or flying through the air with the greatest of ease, which you can learn to do at Trapeze School in Washington DC or other major cities?

Do you think that facing up to a physical fear–like flinging yourself into the air on a trapeze–will help you overcome other fears? Have you ever done anything like that?

And do you think Manhaunch will ever replace the popular Mantitty on romance covers?

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Victoria Janssen
13 years ago

Mmmm. Tasty.

Caroline Storer
13 years ago

Fascinating stuff! Now I know where the word leotard originated from. Thanks for a great blog post! Take care. Caroline x p.s tasty photo as Victoria said!

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

Definitely a fine specimen of a man! Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the leotard got its name from a man, but I couldn’t remember where.

I never wanted to run away with the circus, but I did want to be a professional jockey. I even had a job as an exercise boy when I was a kid in England.

I’ve gone repelling, spelunking, hang gliding and bungee jumping. Spent a lot of time in the rafters in college working lights for shows.

The bungee jumping I did on a dare from my English lit students. If I did it they had to read two Shakespeare plays per semester instead of one. My daring do cost them Macbeth and King Lear.

Jane George
13 years ago

Nice manhaunch!!!

I’m living out my circus fantasies by writing about them in my YA series. My current protagonist is a 16 year old boy who was a star trapecista in Mexico until his family’s circus went bust. He came to the US to work and gets his hand mangled in a meat-packing plant. When my magical circus finds him he’s selling oranges on the streets of LA.

I’m overdue for a research trip to the local trapeze arts school.

Louisa, I wanted to be a jockey too! I was SO jealous of Steve Cauthen when he rode the Triple Crown, and I’m a longtime fan of Dick Francis. I never rode exercise, but I used to have a TB mare and we did lower level eventing.

Jane Austen
13 years ago

I know Florida State actually has a circus college. They have ties with the Ringling Museum in Sarasota even though FSU’s main campus is in Tallahassee.

I also now know who to thank for those 14 years in a leotard I experienced when I was a ballerina…although to be honest the normal sized leotard never fit me…I was too tall to stand up straight in them. My mother had to make them longer every year.

I didn’t want to join the circus or become a jockey, but when I was younger I wanted to plan the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I can tell you anything you’d like to know about it from the Clown College that Macy holds each year to the fact that in the beginning Macy’s used to release the balloons after the parade and if someone brought a balloon back they got a free washer/dryer or refrigerator. This practice stopped in the 1930s when the Great Depression caused people to go to great lengths to get a balloon. After some close calls and a little violence the US government stepped in and said Macy’s could no longer do that.

As a side note I was just friended by one of my character on Facebook. A Captain Frederick Wentworth has friended me and is sending me e-mails as if I am his Anne Elliot. Very interesting.

Jane George
13 years ago

Jane Austen = Maureen O’Hara in A Miracle on 34th Street!

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after

I have a cousin at Toronto School of Circus Arts and you would not believe the hours they keep. I’m in constant awe. Great post.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I never wanted to run away to join the circus. Clowns used to scare me when I was a little girl. As did ventriloquist dummies (thanks to a scary Twilight Zone).
I did want to be a torch singer in a piano bar, though…..

Janet, you have a talent for finding nice nearly naked pictures of men!

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