12 November 1859: Jules Leotard's flying trapeze

On this day in 1859, Jules Leotard performed the world’s first ever flying trapeze act, wowing audiences in the Cirque Napoleon in Paris.

Jules Leotard was born in Toulouse, where his father was a gymnastics teacher who also ran a swimming pool. The young Leotard practised in his father's gym, and became expert on the parallel bars. Soon, he began to experiment with a trapeze hung over the pool.

At the age of 18, despite studying to become a lawyer, he decided to join Victor Franconi's Cirque Napoleon in Paris. And it was here in 1859 that he introduced the world to his flying trapeze act. In the course of his 12-minute routine, he became the first person to perform a mid-air somersault, and the first to leap from one trapeze to another.

He brought his act to London in 1861, and he was a smash hit in music halls and pleasure gardens. He was reputed to be paid £180 a week – the equivalent of £5,000 in today's money.

Now, however, he is perhaps more remembered for the item of clothing he invented than for his mid-air feats of derring-do. His maillot – now of course, known as the leotard – not only allowed him free movement, with no chance of getting entangled in the trapeze, but it showed his... physique... to good effect.

This made him something of a hit with the ladies. And his charms were commemorated in the 1867 song The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (written by George Leybourne and Gaston Lyle), which tells of how a young maiden eloped with a trapeze artist, devastating her paramour.

But Leotard's sparkling career was cut short early. He died in 1870, in Spain, aged 28. Not, perhaps surprisingly, from crashing to the ground, but of smallpox, (or perhaps cholera, nobody is quite sure).

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