Some Australian friends of mine were recently having a discussion about whether they should organize their country's first-ever wheel gymnastics competition. Some of them thought it was a good idea. Others, not so much. Although it may not seem like a controversial topic, it can be. You see, there are two pretty distinct spheres in the wheel community: wheeling for competition ("wheel gymnastics") and wheeling for performance or recreation.
I'm in a unique place to weigh in because I've participated extensively in both spheres. In my experience, it's true that they are very, very different. They do both take a lot of training and preparation, and attention to technique, safety, and skill -- and of course they both involve the awesomeness of wheel -- but the main similarities end there. Wheel gymnastics has an end goal of participating in competition and improving personal skills and scores, as judged by others. The rules are quite rigid: No music with lyrics, must include certain required elements, must be a specific length of time, must wear specific clothing. Your routines are scored based on a number of factors, including their difficulty; so if you are good, you can put in a lot of very difficult elements -- even though, in most cases, those elements don't actually look particularly impressive to a lay audience. There is a performative element, but it's somewhat subdued because the many rules and regulations tend to put a damper on being truly creative.
The circus and performance world, in contrast, is all about creativity and artistry. There are essentially no rules. If you want to dress as a leprechaun and paint your wheel every color of the rainbow, you can. If you want to develop an act that uses only pieces of wheel rather than a whole wheel, you can. If you want to combine slam poetry and minimalism with wheeling in a 30-minute avant-garde routine that takes place in low lighting, you can. There is always a risk that the audience won't dig your routine -- or that what you develop won't live up to the grand vision you have in your head -- but the stakes are different in that there are no winners and, if you play your cards right, you can actually get paid (versus participating in competition, where you typically pay and get only satisfaction from the experience in return).
There are parts I like and dislike about both competition and performance. Honestly, I dislike most things about competition. It's stressful. It's not accommodating to creativity. It sometimes feels very risky. It can get repetitive. But what I do like about it is that it provides many opportunities for affordable, top-notch training, and it cultivates an amazing camaraderie between wheelers all around the world. It's also an incredible way to develop your skills. If you can get to the point where you can execute a highly technical competition routine, you almost certainly have the skills to put together a performance routine as well.
I like most things about performance. It's fun, and exciting, and you get immediate (usually positive) feedback from the audience. You get paid for doing what you love. You can be creative. You can share your art with others who may not have seen it before. However, it can be less personally challenging, and for me at least, it doesn't always push me to try my absolute hardest or do my absolute best.
I definitely think there is a place for both performance and competition in the wheeling world. There's no reason to pick just one or the other unless you truly dislike one or the other! If both are available to you, try them and give yourself the opportunity to discover how you feel about them. You can uncover a lot of great things about yourself by living in both worlds!