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Circus training instead of school sports? Now there’s an idea

The Ninja Circus from Mutitjulu shows the benefits social circus can deliver. Ninja Circus

What if social policy-makers knew how beneficial circuses were to the community? This was the provocation pitched to circus producers, trainers, performers and academics who met in the Melba Spiegeltent at the Circus Oz precinct in Collingwood last weekend.

Their meeting was the result of the Circus Futures Forum, jointly sponsored by the Melbourne Festival, the Australian Circus and Physical Theatre Association, and Circus Oz.

Pride in the Ninja Circus

In the Indigenous community of Mutitjulu at Uluru, the local Ninja Circus troupe operates under the auspices of the respected NPY Women’s Council. Led since mid-2012 by circus performer and youth worker Ludo Dumas, who addressed the Circus Futures Forum last weekend, the Ninja Circus is credited by community Elders as stemming the substance abuse and petrol sniffing that has troubled the community’s young people.

The Ninja Circus perform at the Mbantua Festival in 2013.

The troupe’s performance in front of a crowd of 85,000 at the AFL’s Dreamtime Round at the MCG in May 2013 was a source of pride for the remote Indigenous community and its young people.

According to Dumas, who also teaches circus skills at the local Nyangatjatjara College, circus training requires practice, constant repetition of the same tricks, and focus. In an interview with me he observed that staff at the college have noticed a significant improvement in the children’s attention span in classes.

Prior to the start of the circus training, students’ attention span was just 10 minutes. Now, students are able to sustain their concentration for up to two hours in English sessions and up to one-and-a-half hours in maths lessons.

Improved self-esteem, respect for one another, and the ability to work together as a team are other results staff at the college attribute to the playful yet focused training in juggling and acrobatic tumbling.

Performing for communities and at arts events in the Central Desert and at festivals further afield has also developed the young performers’ social skills and ability to confidently engage with strangers. This is a skill set that Dumas suggests will positively support their future paths.

Barefoot jugglers and acrobatic tumblers in the red sand hills at the base of Uluru – this is Social Circus at work. And it’s about as far from the spectacular collection of Australian and international circus companies appearing at this year’s Melbourne Festival as it gets.

Social circus around the world

Social circus combines an interventionist approach to social ills with the sharing and learning of circus skills. More than simply a recreational pursuit of the circus arts, the term designates the co-opting of circus skills for social change.

Emerging in numerous sites around the globe in the early 1990s (the Melbourne-based Women’s Circus was one of the earliest), the processes of Social Circus prioritise the personal and social growth of participants. They aim to encourage the development of self-esteem, the acquisition of social skills, artistic expression, and occupational integration.

Internationally, the Cirque du Monde organisation (nested within the Global Citizenship arm of Cirque du Soleil) has been developing and nurturing Social Circus programs in disadvantaged communities in South America, Africa, and North America since 1995.

These expressions of community-based circus activity are the result of a re-purposing of the circus arts outside the production of commercial entertainment. The Queensland Government-sponsored initiative Unthink the Impossible has trialled circus skills therapy with disabled children in partnership with Flipside Circus.

Melbourne’s Performing Older Women’s Circus has been providing skill development and performance opportunities to over-40s women since 1995.

And every year, thousands of people learn various apparatus skills in “youth” or “social” circus programs offered by more than 60 organisations across Australia. From the remote Sandfly Circus in Broome that runs outreach programs for Indigenous communities in the Kimberley region, to our longest-running youth circus, the Flying Fruit Flies in Albury-Wodonga.

The benefits of community circus

What’s little known about community circus in Australia is the broad range of social and personal benefits that accrue from prolonged participation.

Parents have explained to me that they have turned to recreational circus to assist their children with the management of a broad spectrum of medical conditions including: scoliosis, ADHD, Autism spectrum disorders, OCD, executive function problems, nervous conditions, learning difficulties, shyness, introversion, borderline intellectual disabilities, and depression.

They explain that the circus environment enables children who are social outsiders (as a result of social, intellectual or medical disorders) to feel they belong to a community. They observe that their children’s new sense of belonging leads in turn to improved self-esteem from which other, positive social and wellbeing changes flow.

So if, after more than three decades of pioneering progress in the field of community circus, Australian parents, young participants, and creative workers in the field staunchly advocate for its capacity to effect positive personal and social change, isn’t it high time for research initiatives and cultural policy to catch up with community experience?

How about circus training, funded as an element of physical and personal development in schools, and as an alternative to sport? Now that’s a provocation for our country’s cultural policy-makers.

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