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Festival of Fools rolls back into town for first time since pandemic

Festival of Fools rolls back into town for first time since pandemic

People often shout “the circus is in town!” when they see me coming, but this time I was in town for the circus.

I had come to Circusful, formerly Belfast Community Circus School, to put my clowning skills to the test ahead of this year’s Festival of Fools.

The quirky festival has returned for the first time since the pandemic and they kindly invited me along.

Not one to be put off by my lack of balance, core strength, fitness or basic ability, I limbered up and cartwheeled straight into action.

First up, my very kind and patient instructor Kirsty Millar helped me to try out unicycling.

I’m very good on two wheels, I even got my stabilisers taken off during lockdown... but one wheel?

We tipped a giant crash mat onto its side to help me with balancing and hefting my blubbery frame onto the seat.

With Kirsty holding my hand on the other side I was able to put my feet on the pedals and get myself upright and into the saddle without a nasty groin injury.

Next, the hard part, where I had to start moving. Balancing on a bicycle only requires you to not fall off either side, whereas on a unicycle you can fall in all four directions, making it 10 times harder.

Trying to keep your back straight and head up while maintaining your balance is hard enough, but doing it while moving proved too tough.

However, I was able to make a circuit of the crash mat with Kirsty’s help, which I’m told is good for a beginner.

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Two wheels good, one wheel bad for John as he struggles with the unicycle while trainer Kirsty Millar looks on

Two wheels good, one wheel bad for John as he struggles with the unicycle while trainer Kirsty Millar looks on

Two wheels good, one wheel bad for John as he struggles with the unicycle while trainer Kirsty Millar looks on

Next challenge — roller bowler. Roller bowler is basically balancing on a board that’s on top of a perpendicular cylinder. Think of a skateboard with one set of wheels in the middle, but the wheels are a Pringles tube.

After a quick run-through of how to master this insane art I was up on the board before I could consider the impact it was going to have on my thighs.

Your entire body has to keep moving to stay upright. Minute shifts in your weight and balance mean your body is constantly fighting with itself to stay in position and not fall off. The only way to stay upright is for your legs and knees to gently wobble from left to right while your back, thighs, calves and core desperately push and pull against one another to keep you in position.

Again, I managed to be pretty average. Not great but okay, a phrase which will probably be my epitaph.

I managed to get up and stay up, even managing a few seconds here and there without the help of Kirsty.

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Balancing act: The Roller-Bowler is a discipline requiring strength, balance and concentration

Balancing act: The Roller-Bowler is a discipline requiring strength, balance and concentration

Balancing act: The Roller-Bowler is a discipline requiring strength, balance and concentration

After several attempts the backs of my thighs were on fire, so it was on to the next challenge of hula hoops.

Having been a pretty skilled hula hoop gyrator in my school days I was confident going into this discipline, and my confidence was well placed.

I managed to perform a number of handheld tricks before also getting ‘the star’ trick first time.

That involves getting the hoop off the ground and over the head using only your foot. I did it once and nailed it before doing it a couple more times just to show it wasn’t luck.

Lastly, we moved onto the ancient and sacred art of juggling. Full disclosure here: I have tried juggling previously.

I juggle a lot of things in life — work, family, eating, sitting down, there are lots of competing interests.

However, my dexterity has never allowed me to be any good at juggling balls in the air. I have always been able to do two at one time but never three.

Under the very patient and skilled tutelage of Kirsty that finally changed as I was able to master (sort of) the famous three-ball cascade.

Something just clicked in my primitive brain and all of a sudden the beats and throws came together and I was momentarily the complete master of my balls.

Always one to finish strong, I decided mastery of the spheres was a good place to end my foray into circus performance for the day.

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Hoop there it is!: John masters the basics of hula hooping

Hoop there it is!: John masters the basics of hula hooping

Hoop there it is!: John masters the basics of hula hooping

After catching my breath I sat down for a quick chat with Jenna Hall, chief executive of both Circusful and Festival of Fools.

She told me the four-day performing arts bonanza, taking place from Friday to Monday at venues throughout Belfast, has something for everybody.

Ms Hall said: “The long weekend is jam-packed and bursting with energy, from brilliantly talented circus and street theatre artists to comedy and performance art.

“It’s a great opportunity for communities and families to come together and see astonishing work which bring Belfast to life.

“It’s both brilliantly exciting and slightly terrifying to be back for the first time in three years as it’s been such a long time since we’ve been here.

“We’ve got artists from Italy, the Republic of Ireland, Chile, Portugal and all over the place coming to Belfast to bring fun and connection across the communities.”

The festival offers over 70 free performances taking place on the streets of Belfast city centre and the Cathedral Quarter.

This year it is showcasing a record number of performances from young people and for the first time a youth group will open the weekend of events at Writers’ Square at 6pm on Friday.

When it came to assessing my abilities as a circus performer, Ms Hall was very generous.

She said: “Your progression in each of them was very quick.

“Initially you were quite tentative on the unicycle for example but once you found out how to get up on your own you managed a full lap of the mat, which is something to be proud of.

“Your juggling, we know you’ve done that before, so that’s a little bit of a cheat, but with the hula hoop you managed the star at the first try, so well done.”


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