Some thoughts on Circus Spaces and Community

foto hln wannes nimmegeers

Entering the circus community

I was almost thirty years old when I joined the circus school in my new city, Ghent, around the turn of the century. A few years earlier I had migrated from a small town many miles further, and from a broken relationship, and I found it really difficult to integrate in this city full of people. How to make contact with other people? Where to belong?  I often felt lonely, considered my self as a Lost Soul, just as so many other thousands of people in that big city.

Through some coincidences, someone I just met taught me how to juggle one night, and then another person popped up and invited me to an open space for jugglers in the circus school that had just started in my neighborhood. One thing led to another, and I soon was there three nights a week. Then they asked me to help out with managing the bar, and later on with giving workshops and organising some small performances. I joined the Board and later became an employee and regular circus teacher.

Without being fully aware of it, I stumbled upon a vibrant community, where I made a lot of friends, shared love and life lessons, travelled and dined together, cared and was being cared for, went to marriages, hospitals and one funeral. I definitely belonged there, and I contributed as much as I wanted. Being part of that local circus community changed and coloured my life extensively.

My emerging doubts

That was some eighteen years ago. Today I have the privilege of knowing a much larger part of the international circus community, where I share so many intense moments of joy, laughter and also frustration and pain. I’ve written a small booklet on the power of inclusive circus and give quite some trainings for circus trainers.

But something is itching inside of me for a while.  My entrance in my local circus community was quite straightforward. Only weeks before,  I had gotten the juggling microbe, and the sharing of our circus passions and skills was the perfect code to meet people who were once silent strangers for me, with whom I could now play and have fun with, in a very easy way. Non-verbal connecting works great for me… Those circus experiences gave me the opportunity to grow further, develop myself and find many other passions inside of me. And now I realise….that I no longer feel a passion for juggling myself. I still love to see other people play, I developed a passion for group dynamics, mediation, teaching and learning, and so many other things. I enjoy seeing circus and helping other circus people to develop their projects. But my primary code to connect with other people is vanishing. The circus microbe inside my own aging body, has been pushed away by so many other nice microbes.

Which brings me to the difficult question: do I still belong to my circus community, if I practice circus skills myself less and less? That community that gave me so much life, love, recognition, friendship, caring?

“Of course you still do!”, I hear most of you thinking.

The ‘inner circle’

But I want to provoke you and look at the daily practice in many circus schools. If the circus space is the real center of a circus organisation, the people that have the most circus skills are perhaps the most in the ‘inner circle’ of that circus community, with the highest status, or so it is perceived by many less skilled artists and teachers. I like to call that mechanism, ironically meant, “skill fascism”, and I believe it does exist in many circus schools. Does someone that only knows how to throw the juggling scarfs belong as much to the circus organisation as someone who swiftly juggles five clubs? And what happens with that great teeter board artist after he makes a really bad fall? Is he still a full member of the circus community when he no longer jumps, and only brings his son to the weekly circus lessons? What about the adminstrative helper at the circus office? She’s a great help for the circus community but doesn’t have any circus skills. Does she belong?  Maybe we say she does, but does she feel that way herself, seeing most of the attention and status directed towards the center of the circus ring?

The truth is, that a circus organisation needs a lot of helping hands. And many of those contributing hands don’t exhibit a high level of circus skills, if any. So many volonteers, parents, adminstrative helpers, sound engineers, cleaners, board members, … contribute so much of their time and energy to the circus school, but do they feel they belong as much to it as the best jugglers, aeralists or magicians?

In some youth or social circus organisations, it is quite clear who can be called a full member, and who not, but in many more, membership is mostly informal and up to different interpretations. Sometimes you can feel part of the school (“I’m in!”), and another moment not (“I’m out….”). Who decides?

Circus and Community

We all know that in these changing times,  a lot of us are migrating in space, but also in age. Many of us face feelings of confusion, anxiety, loneliness, uselessness and are in big need of new communities to thrive in. In literature, we find definitions of Community that talk about Belonging and Contributing. And the Belonging Part is sometimes broken down into Caring and Frequent Interaction. Communities can be fertile grounds for new friendships, support, sharing, love, wisdom, play, co-creation etc. And….uhm…isn’t that EXACTLY what so many circus schools and organisation provide, as a warm side dish, next to the main dish of circus learning, practicing and performing? And isn’t this side dish for many members the main reason to come so frequently to the circus space? I recently read in a circus space in Rotterdam the following sentence of a young member, written on a wall: “It is so much fun here, that I almost don’t find the time to do circus”. There you go.

Circus is developing very quickly in Europe and beyond. Next to the rise of circus as a great artform on the streets and inside the cultural centers, and next to the growth in (youth) circus schools that organise frequent trainings in different circus skills for professionals and amateurs, there is also the further development and proliferation of Inclusive or Social Circus. And as part of that Inclusive Circus Approach, there is a growing attention for Community Circus, where local circus schools have the ambition to help create new communities and links between people in their local neighborhood, through all ages. In my opinion there is a huge potential for Community Circus, but perhaps we will need to explore what Community can mean for us, and how we can let it prosper inside and outside of our circus group.

Six building blocks for creating and maintaining a sense of Community

The following building blocks are partly inspired by “The art of Community”, a book by Charles Vogl.

  • Membership: Who is member of your circus community, and who is merely a visitor? What are the criteria to becoming a full member? What are the benefits of being a full member? Do you have different categories of membership, e.g. being a teacher, volonteer, pupil,…? Being a real member of an organisation can give a lot of clarity, and can boost a feeling of self-worth and commitment from the members.
  • Token: Does your organisation have a symbol, a token? Probably it has. A lot of people like to wear this token, when it is printed on a t-shirt, a hat, a pin, trousers, stickers,…. It again shows their allegiance to a circus community where they love to belong and contribute to.
  • Shared Values: Does your circus organisation have a kind of Manifesto? A simple and accessible text where we find the mission, vision and values of the organisation. This can be a great tool to connect people even more to the circus group. Why not discuss and endorse  values such as ‘acceptance of diversity’, ‘promoting play’, ‘love for the circus arts’, ‘supporting social justice’, ‘spreading the circus microbe’, ‘caring for each other’ or ‘working participatory’?
  • Gatekeepers: When you have open activities or an easily accesible open circus space, it can be of great importance to appoint some ‘gatekeepers’. These are people that have the task of welcoming new people, informing them about possible membership, connecting them with others, and excluding some, if needed. Don’t expect curious firstcomers to sniff out all the information themselves, or make easily new social contacts. Some elderly gatekeepers can be a real treasure for your organisation, and can help it grow, if growth is wished for.
  • Stories: Do younger members know a thing or two about the creation and the history of your circus organisation? Are there pictures from the past on the wall? Do we take the time to inform the newcomers and let them feel part of an evolving tradition? Do we tell each other stories about the past and possible futures of the community we belong to?
  • The Temple: A circus organisation should revolve around circus, in a broad way. But that doesn’t mean that the actual circus space, where the circus skills are shown and shared, can be the only place of interest and connection, especially when you have the ambition to break your organisation open and let it be part of a vibrant neighborhood network. Then the functionality of the circus space can be so much broader. Part of your circus building or tent can perhaps sometimes be used as an art exhibition space or a cinema, a popular kitchen or a repair café, a Playstation room or a party space, a library or a meditation space, a knitting place or a bar, a communal meeting space, a place where local youth can be helped with their homework, where their parents can find advice by social workers, a fitness room, or a simple place with some old sofas where local kids can enjoy free WiFi.

Acknowledging Community

Why not discuss some of these elements in your circus organisation? It all depends on where you want to go with your own circus organisation, and in how far you want to acknowledge that quite a lot of your members actually see circus as a means for belonging to a warm community, rather than seeing it as an individual goal of becoming extremely skilled. Let there be as much space for professional growth as possible, without those highly skilled circus artists always getting the most applause in your circus community.

Even those great artists will become older and less agile, and will be so grateful if they can remain part of that warm and caring circus community that gave them so much love, friendships, wisdom and adventures.

And me myself? After some doubts, struggles and long talks, I’m am more and more confident that my contribution to circus is much more than those few circus skills I once managed to perform and teach in a semi-graceful way. Thanks to my age, I  now have more insights, experience, greater awareness, organisation talent, facilitation skills, patience and love for all those other beautiful and weird people, wishing to find and keep connection and community through circus, and beyond.

(picture: copyright Wannes Nimmegeers)

Steven Desanghere

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