By Aiden FitzGerald
The lure of the circus is no longer confined to dreamers and runaways looking for escape.
And the benefits of practicing circus arts are as endless as movement itself— juggling, clowning, hoops, trapeze, contortion— all these disciplines strengthen both body and mind, enthusiasts say.
Exercise and sense of community resulting from social circus programs, like Circus Up in Jamaica Plain, bolster children’s strength and self-esteem.
“Circus improves fitness, creativity, confidence, focus, and collaboration,” said Leah Abel, founder and owner of Circus Up, where she leads a community troop called Kirkos as well as summer and after-school programs.
As a trained social worker, Abel follows the Liberation Health Model, a wholistic approach which looks not only at the individual, the culture and institutions affecting a student’s life.
“We try to weave that kind of work into everything we do,” she said.
“Let’s say there’s a kid in one of our programs who’s showing up grumpy and tired all the time, and they don’t want to participate much,” said Abel. “Instead of saying, ‘Pull it together and get up, and leave everything at the door, this is circus time,’ we might try to dig a little deeper and figure out why that kid is grumpy.”
To try to get to the root of an issue, Abel and her staff aim to understand each child’s individual and family situation. The grumpy child might be exhausted from caring for a younger sibling without childcare coverage.
“We can’t necessarily solve each and every problem that comes up, but we can actually look at some of the problems and say, ‘Is it possible that we could help with childcare?’ “Maybe not, but maybe it is, right? Maybe it actually is. Maybe our network can help figure that out.”
Instead of shaming that child, who might just need a nap, Abel looks for solutions.
Abby Wilson, a Circus Up coach since 2019, said she herself benefitted from participating in a social circus as child in New Jersey, while training at the Trenton Circus Squad.
“Circus has always been a part of my life,” said Wilson, whose specialties are juggling, trapeze and partner acrobatics. “It has taught me the importance of community and to be self-confident.”
As a coach, Wilson loves to see the benefits of increased focus and perseverance in students.
One, Yariel, is training to be a coach for Circus Up and hopes to perform in a professional circus one day.
“I love everything about Circus Up,” said Yariel, 11, who didn’t provide his last name. He likes how it makes him feel stronger, both mentally and physically.
“You need a lot of patience to do circus,” he said. “I am strong until I get stuck and then there are coaches to help. They help with everything.”
Indeed, Circus Up coaches help with training skills, school work and tutoring, as well as with personal and social issues such as alleviating food insecurity. On top of that, Abel works constantly to raise funds for programming.
“The kids joke that I have a date with my computer,” said Abel, who is transparent with them about the cost of circus programs and her efforts toward receiving grants and funding.
An awareness and a passion for social justice issues has always been central to Abel’s identity.
“It makes up the fabric of my whole life,” said Abel, who as an 11-year-old child, spoke at the state house with her best friend against the dissection of frogs.
Abel fell in love with the art and the sport of circus training while in college and, and is committed to its ensemble aspect.
“The better my partner is, the better I will be,” she said. “I need my partner to be in a really good place because if I’m standing on their shoulders, I need to trust them and vice versa. So it’s in my best interest to help my partner.”
That partnership, and general sense of community, seems at the core of what makes social circus programs successful.
“We are in this to create community,” said Scott Merchant, Director of Operations of CircEsteem, in Chicago, “We want to establish a foundation of shared humanity across backgrounds and identities, using circus as that vehicle through which to connect.”
Merchant said the goal isn’t to create the best performers possible, or to lead children into a career in circus.
“If that’s a path that they would like to pursue, that’s fantastic. But it’s secondary.”
CircEsteem was founded more than twenty years ago by retired Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey clown, Paul Miller, with a mission to build self-esteem. The organization works with a large immigrant population who might not have language as a common denominator to get to know each other but they have the same juggling tricks.
“They can speak to each other through play,” Merchant said. “There’s a quick connection that allows them to break down barriers based on shared skills.”
Whether the children drop the trick or complete it, they are taught to stand tall and proud and “to sell to the audience that they landed it.” The children are encouraged to hold a pose for as long as it takes them to say to themselves the phrase, ’‘spaghetti, meatballs, pizza pie.”
“That’s how long to hold your arms up, fingers wide, stand proud and absorb the applause,” said Merchant.
Rebecca Starr, a circus coach and assistant to the Pro-Track Director at New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), said variety of disciplines helps make circus such a great after school or social program.
“You can take all the kids in the neighborhood and bring them into the circus school and there’s something for everyone,” Starr said.
“There is something for every body type, and for every person,” she said. “For the really physical kids or people, there’s acrobatics and aerials. Or are you a class clown? Are you an introvert? Do you want to juggle? Do you like hula hoops? The options are endless.”
Circus Up participant, Yariel, is focused on juggling.
“I make mistakes and keep at it,” said Yariel, who is currently working on being able to juggle four balls and hopes to soon move onto mastering five.
“I’m just trying to keep pushing and pushing until I get it, and then I’ll move onto the next adventure,” he said. “Circus is an adventure.”