Insights from a Circus Newbie
Hello! I’m Emily – the new Social Media Assistant with Think Circus. ‘What is social circus?’ is a question I’ve been asked a lot recently by friends and family, who are curious about my workplace. Unlike my hula hooping, juggling and acrobat colleagues, the world of circus was completely new to me. In fact, I joined the team not knowing what to expect, except that circus sounded fun and the idea of a ‘social’ circus was intriguing. I had questions:
-How on earth does circus fit in with social change?
-What makes a circus social?
-What impact can circus actually have on a community?
With my one ball juggling skills and a frayed hula hoop I’ve had since I was five, curiosity got the better of me and now I get to tell people I’ve run away with the circus. For the past two months, I’ve been thrown into this new group of people figuring out Think Circus’s mission and what it means to be a performer. As the social media assistant, I want to capture what we get up to in its most authentic light. To do that, I needed to better acquaint myself with all things circus…
On my first day, after nervously edging off the train into seemingly the middle of nowhere, I walked into the room where Think Circus was hosting a children’s showcase. From the outside, the place looked like an unassuming warehouse. Upon entering, however, it was clearly the right place. Under a billowing tarpaulin, wrapped up like a circus tent, 10 children were twirling with fans on a stage. Red bunting draped across the wall, a person matching in red emerged to greet me: Kat, wearing ruffle shorts and a sparkly waistcoat.
As I watched Kat and the rest of the team take insignificant objects and swirl them into beautiful shapes, everything flowing so smoothly between them and the air, I was hooked. From then on in, I’ve been all over the place, covering performances from fire eating to juggling mermaids, from a hula hooping convention to meeting a ten-foot puppet. Last week we visited one of our performer’s houses, to be swarmed in eight tiny cockapoo puppies. There are countless more weird and wonderful events, the more ridiculous, the better.
To understand what this social circus shenanigan was about, I did as any person does in these internet times: I Googled it. Scrolling the results, I found Think Circus’s film project from earlier this year, Imagined Bodies. This film centres around the response to social isolation during lockdown, the increased focus on body image, and the daily negative thoughts we have about ourselves. Using circus to create a social dialogue about these pressing issues left me wondering what else could circus be?
I realised I had certain misconceptions… clowns, ringmasters, stripey tents, lions on chains, a human cannonball. When we think of circus, these images spring to mind. However, social circus has nothing to do with the tethering of wild animals or The Greatest Showman. With every event, class and project I got stuck into the message became clear.
With teaching skills as a way to bring people together, social circus is a tool to break barriers and build bridges between different social groups in society. Circus brings learning, discipline, creativity, artistic expression and most importantly the recognition of potential in ourselves, our abilities, and others. These skills widen our horizons and quality of life.
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine these ideas shared in an everyday setting. Big things start small. The more day-to-day moments matter most and the micro things we communicate to people. Tiny words of reassurance and inspiration can trigger a thought which can activate a whole new pattern of thinking. It is proven that just one person from outside our social group broadens our opportunities and can change our life path.
With that in mind, I’ve seen this happen throughout one of our most treasured projects: Girls Forest Circus. For the past couple of months, we have been working with a group of at-risk 11-12-year-old young girls learning circus skills and socialising. This is a point in many girls lives where they feel shunned from physical exercise due to factors such as body shame, lack of confidence, anxiety related to periods and fear of failure. I know this affected me profoundly when I was a young teen, and still does for many of us.
By providing a safe space to relax, have fun with friends in nature and learn circus, the aim is to be a grounding and positive support. It’s the simple things like learning to hoop, helping each other walk a tightwire and chatting over our magic pot of tea and biscuits, that is a connecting force worth building. It has been lovely to see how the girls exceed their limits, build a sense of empowerment, emotional intelligence and confidence that will hopefully help them to overcome barriers later in life. Of course, this isn’t to say that everything comes easy and all at once, or that circus fixes all the systemic issues that weigh on people, but it is an impactful way into self-belief and changing minds.
I’ve been lucky enough to catch hoop training and learn some circus myself. Not many people get to say that hula hoop lessons are part of their typical work week! Having a background in dance, I was keen to be guided back into flow arts for movement, fitness and most importantly, joy. After a year of lockdowns and university stress, I’d not moved for fun in a long time. With a hoop in my hand and some tricks to learn, I found myself creating shapes, getting sweaty, relaxing my mind and body. Living with generalised anxiety, hula hooping in my garden and bedroom has been a relaxant on my brain. My house, on the other hand, has taken a beating, as I’ve found myself chaotically knocking over mugs, houseplants and torn a lampshade from my ceiling all in the name of circus! I have since been informed that this is part of the process.
When we think of circus, we think of spectacle, feats of the impossible, absurdity, impressive bodies, and magic. And rightly so. Something is mesmerising about remarkable accomplishments of the human body. But Circus isn’t just about observing the exhibition of something we believe to be unattainable. It is about breaking down these supposedly impossible feats into the possible and failing over and over until we create something we couldn’t do before. Social circus tends to draw people in and creates a place of shared knowledge, teaching and community. Existing worldwide, it helps areas of great social inequality, unrest, and poverty. We are just a portion of a global movement with the same goal to create change in people’s lives through circus.
On a whim, I applied to Think Circus. I wanted something new. After a tough year at university in lockdown, I needed to push myself into situations that I knew would challenge me, to contribute to something that would make a difference and have a bit more fun. I never expected how much I would care, wholeheartedly, about this strange, little nook of the arts, about the people in this community and the shared goal for a better society through circus. In the beginning, I was worried I wasn’t the right kind of person for this performance-based environment. As an introverted and often shy person, my natural comfort zone feels as far from the spotlight as I can get.
The truth is that there is no ‘typical’ sort of person in circus. Everyone is united in their difference. Circus celebrates it. It’s made up of everyone, the weird and wonderful, the wacky and brilliant who just want to make people smile, mesmerise them with tricks and encourage people that all humans are capable of incredible things.