American Circus Educators Magazine Winter 2016 (Issue 3, Vol 8) | Page 28

techniques that are already familiar to experienced coaches, such as breaking down tricks into components and teaching components of a trick separately, scaling up to the final trick and utilizing varying forms of spotting/coaching. For example, a blind circus participant would require verbal feedback as they interact with an apparatus, but a deaf participant would learn best through modelling the expected movements. Finally, having equipment that is able to adjust to a variety of heights and sizes can increase the range of people that can be accommodated within a space. It is also crucial to examine a circus educator’s preconceptions as well as the policies within a circus space to ensure that a program does not have structural barriers to accessibility. To examine preconceptions start by asking yourself and your educators who you think of when you envision participants in a circus program? Are the barriers you and others have pointed out legitimate safety concerns, or could they be addressed by creative thinking and a different approach? For example, are disabled participants able to easily access the space? This can go beyond physical accessibility, and include thinking through things such as if the space is easily accessible via public transit, or accessible transportation. Is there a program to assist participants in paying fees if they are unable to afford them? What are the minimum levels of physical ability that are expected for students in order to be successful, and is this bar set too high, or would it be advantageous to add in a foundational class for some students? Do students have access to emotional supports? Are staff trained to be trauma aware? Is it possible to work with students in noise reduced environments? Is the progression of skills a student is expected to learn appropriate for that particular student? These are some of the questions that are important to consider when thinking about how circus programs can be more responsive to the needs of a much wider variety of students. THE THERAPEUTIC ROLE OF CIRCUS Circus has the ability to be therapeutic for so many people in a variety of manners. Circus has profoundly impacted my (Shay’s) own relationship with my body in some really powerful ways. As a disabled person, you become accustomed to all of the ways that your body works against you, and living in a disabled body can feel like a big fight a lot of the time. When I first came to circus, the shift for me was incredibly profound. I was a disabled person with a bigger body, attempting to do something that even the most able athletes find challenging and demanding. While progress for me was slow, especially at first, recognizing that there were gains, and having those gains celebrated and appreciated provided me with the opportunity to experience my body in a completely different way than I ever had before. Instead of having an experience of my body that was characterized by pain, and by all of the things that I wasn’t typically able to do, I had the opportunity to learn how to create something with it, and to experience it as strong. Being present in my body while engaged in the act of learning circus skills gave me an experience of my body being a source of joy and confidence, and having that experience profoundly changed me. Being engaged in the process of learning the skill was far more profound to me than the skills themselves. Within the therapeutic world, there has been a shift to becoming more trauma aware and trauma focused. What that means is that there is a recognition that most people have likely experienced trauma at some point in their lives, whether it was a larger kind of trauma like abuse or neglect, or the common traumas of growing up, like bullying. We recognize that we need to be aware of these traumas and responsive to them. Further, the work of Dr. Bruce Perry 28 The ACE Social and Adaptive Circuses Directory, on the ACE website, provides a contact point to organizations engaged in therapeutic and adaptive circus work who can provide guidance to other programs on these issues or who are interested in developing adaptive programming. The SANCA Outreach Program and Social Circus Program in Seattle works with students from a wide range of learning, physical, and emotional disabilities as well as students who are living on the margins. The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides training and education on becoming a trauma informed program. CYC-NET is an online youth work resource that can help provide guidance with issues that young people are facing such as trauma, developmental delays, ADHD etc. There is also an email based discussion group. has he lped us understand that early trauma has a significant impact on brain development, and development for people as a whole, and that one of the things that we can do to help people heal from these traumas is to engage with them on tasks that involve their bodies in particular ways, especially utilizing techniques such as safe touch, or activities that develop a sense of rhythm within a person. These activities need to be repeated thousands of times, but can have a profound impact on how a person is able to recover from trauma, without even needing to directly speak about what has happened to them. Circus is an ideal setting for this to occur, there are opportunities to have the repetition that is necessary, a supportive environment that fosters someone’s growth, coupled with an artistic outlet for people to express their feelings in an embodied way. Plus, all of the wonderful benefits of safe risk taking, developing trust, physical activity etc. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal setting for this kind of healing to happen in. Anecdotally, I (Amber) see this reality reflected in the work I am doing with my students. I work primarily PHOTOS BY XANDRIA BARBER with adult women in recovery from addiction, homelessness, domestic violence and trauma related mood disorders. We work around themes of empowerment, fat positivity, and radical self acceptance. An issue I see consistently with my students is a disconnection from their bodies, shame about their size, discomfort with physical activity, and a need for creativity and community in their lives. Sweating, stretching, being out of breath, and physically exerting themselves are all things that can lead to a trauma response, and thus, a negative relationship with exercise and embodiment. By making space to stop, slow down, talk, cry, or otherwise process their experience of embodiment, my students are able to heal, grow, and redefine their relationship with their body. Through circus, students can learn a new story about their body—that it is strong, it is capable, it is beautiful. Creating that new narrative is impactful for anyone who comes to circus, and can be especially transformative for those in recovery from traumas that left them estranged from their physical bodies and triggered by the experience of embodiment. FUTURE DIRECTIONS/IMPLICATIONS One of the most effective ways we can become more inclusive, adaptive, and trauma informed is by assessing our goals and expectations as educators and by increasing our awareness around the universality of trauma. Common coach complaints are, “My student doesn’t want to try this skill” and “My student can’t yet perform this skill and I’m frustrated that I don’t know how to get them there.” If your student isn’t ready or able, and is otherwise happy with their practice, what is the problem? To be inclusive and respect our student’s physical and emotional process we must separate our goals from their goals. We can do this by both assessing our own biases and making room for our students to define their own experience of circus arts. In this way, we are providing person-centered, compassionate care to our students. Alternatively, if your student is genuinely struggling with how hard it is to reach their goals, emotionally supporting your student by acknowledging their struggle and validating that experience is just as imperative as recommending a new conditioning skill to advance their practice. While working to make circus programming accessible and adaptable can certainly provide challenges to traditional conceptions of circus education, it’s important to recognize the hope and opportunities that this can present as well. If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of making some of the changes, recognize that you are not alone and feel free to reach out, either to the two of us, or to other circus organizations that are undertaking this work. This article isn’t meant to provide concrete answers, but rather to create a starting point to working towards this together. Seeing such a willingness to discuss these issues at EdCon (through multiple panels on the therapeutic applications of circus and accessibility and adaptability within circus), provided hope that we can increase the number of tools in our circus tool bags to ensure that circus is truly for every body. SHAY ERLICH is currently completing their Master’s in Child and Youth Care at Ryerson University. They are multiply disabled and genderqueer. Shay first came to circus in 2014, and is currently working on developing performances that reflect Shay’s identity and lived experience as disabled. They hope to use circus therapeutically in their work with children and youth after their graduation. AMBER PARKER is a coach with EveryBody’s Circus, a therapeutic circus program, at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) and a Master’s Degree candidate at Antioch University in family systems therapy with a specialization in drama therapy. She discovered circus in 2014, when she began training recreationally in aerial arts and contortion. Since that time Amber has become increasingly curious about therapeutic circus and have devoted both her career at SANCA and her acad emic study to the development of that field. 29