If you asked me two years ago what I was doing with my life, I would have answered “I just got back from a training trip from Montreal, now I’m finalizing a contract to go perform in Europe for nine months. I devote my life to the practice of Circus.” But after an accident and potentially life-changing surgery, I was forced to change my relationship to circus. And today, I would answer this question differently, but with as much excitement as before, “I am applying to graduate school for Occupational Therapy”.

I’m not here to tell you a cautionary tale or reveal the details of my growth and adaptation. I will say that when I was performing I was so wrapped up in developing my own skill I never saw how fascinating the processes of others are.  As circus artists, we build these worlds for ourselves, rich in activities, rituals, and our senses, creating an intimacy through relationships with common objects and environments. We climb trees so we can rig aerial equipment. (After consulting a rigger and an arborist of course!) We tape up our wrists and hula hoops so we can practice. We travel all night just to make it to the show on time. To us, these are the activities that make up our everyday lives. We’ve become masters of adaptation in order to live the circus life. But the circus life doesn’t end at performing. These skills and traits of adaptability, creativity, and ability to modify our very environments prime us for a life beyond performing. I believe the unique traits and attitudes of circus artists can enrich the lives of non-performers. This ability to expand the umbrella of circus into other fields, such as health, will also enrich the art of circus as a whole.

I’ve always loved circus because it’s one of the few arts that actively shows the relationship between the body, object, and environment and the processes that are possible. In a circus performance, the focus of what is possible in these relationships has traditionally been big. Flying trapeze. Flips, twists, and catches. As if the body has no limits. As performers we show the breadth of what our body can do. Often, the more the body can do, the more relationships one can show. While seeing a big new skill still makes my heart drop, what I love most about circus is the ability to do something unthinkable with limited factors. For instance, when I drop for my  catcher to catch me by the feet I am giving up the use of my hands and sight all the while resting my life in the hands of another.

The raw factor in circus is the celebration of the human body to overcome all odds. So what does the field of Occupational Therapy have in common with Circus Arts? Whether it is to flip a coin with one’s fingers or to flip one’s body on a trampoline, activities are also known as “occupations.” Occupational therapy is an allied health field that helps people with physical and mental disabilities complete occupations, daily tasks, and simple actions. Innovative problem solving informs the science. Occupational Therapists have training in Anatomy and Physiology, Neuroscience, Occupations, Psychology, etc. They work in varied settings. They may teach a stroke victim to re-learn how to bathe herself or help two Autistic children play a game together. Aside from taking classes and gaining observational experience in the field, how can a circus artist possibly understand what a person who might receive Occupational Therapy is going through? If anything, circus artists have hyper-developed proprioception and muscle tone! I’ll pose an analogy:

Do you remember the first time you got “caught” in aerial silks? You probably climbed up too high, got confused and wrapped the wrong way, and all of a sudden here you are, upside down in the air and completely panicked that you’ll never get out. All your trainer can do is guide you to the solution. The first challenge is to pull yourself upright, using abdominal muscles you’ve never called upon before. Next you have to get yourself out of a crazy knot, using the other foot to untie what seems like an impossible tangle. Meanwhile, you are losing strength and patience! But you keep going. Why? Because you simply have to go on. Finally, you break free. Congratulations; you’ve just adapted! Now imagine experiencing that frustration doing something as simple as taking a shower.

When I was exploring “OT”, I was both surprised and thrilled to discover circus practitioners who were already conducting research connecting Circus Arts to the allied health fields and education. Developmental Circus Arts (DCA) is a term coined by movement and circus arts teacher Jackie Davis (currently getting her PhD in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia) to describe the philosophy and practice of using circus-making as a vehicle for physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development in young people. Circus Arts in this practice are not limited to the gym or studio, but take place in a therapeutic setting as well.  Opportunities also exist for occupational therapists within school systems and the wider community. Jill Magilo and Carol McKinstry developed evaluation tools for a “Circus in Schools” program. “In assessing the capacities of individuals and planning programs to improve function and occupational performance, circus trainers and occupational therapists have complementary skills ” (Magilo and McKinstry 2).

Collaboration leads to partnerships and greater networks. In the allied health fields, there is room to blend circus activities with more common interventions. How might Circus work with more common interventions? An example involves “Constraint Induced Movement Therapy.”

This kind of therapy improves upper extremity function in stroke and other central nervous system damage victims by increasing the use of their affected upper limb. In a study of CIMT within a circus-themed day camp, researchers note, “while modified CIMT places demands on a child’s psychological needs for autonomy, competency and sense of relatedness, the circus-themed day camp environment provided a novel experience and a means of moderating these potential challenges” (Gilmore et al. 6).

This positive environment appeared to help children maintain an autonomously motivated, regulated state in which they could enjoy participating in activities. Everyone has a place in the circus, including individuals across disadvantaged populations. “For many individuals, social circus offered a way of (re)integrating into society in a way that suited their skills and aptitudes, such as the case of a deaf participant who was unable to read or write, had been begging on the streets until the social circus program allowed him to excel in his physical skills as a circus performer, building his confidence to the point that he was given a contract to serve as an instructor himself” (Spiegel et al. 9). This observation was based on a larger study of social circus in marginalized communities in Ecuador.

How might circus artists approach a client case? A conceptual tool I sometimes used in creating circus acts was to eliminate one variable I normally used, as a means to discover new skills, transitions, and ideas. For instance, I did a study once in a trapeze routine where I was not allowed once to hang by two knees. Upon discovering the field of Occupational Therapy, I began to see how adaptation could change what I wanted to accomplish as a teacher. Per individual student, I adapted trampoline activities, learning how to mitigate injury while enhancing deficits. Example: Nellie, a 50-years young post-knee surgery patient, was able to bend her knee more without gravity. Nellie was frustrated with other workouts, seeing them as a measure of failure rather than success. Chris, a non-verbal 18 year old, took initiative showing me what he could do without prompting.

Suzanne Rappaport. Workshop: "Circus for Survivors"

Suzanne Rappaport’s Workshop: “Circus for Survivors”

Someone who has been a guide for me during this process is Suzanne Rappaport. Suzanne, a longtime coach at the New England Center for Circus Arts, is an OT who runs a workshop for female cancer survivors. “Once I started to analyze the effects of circus and articulate how powerful circus is for the people I have worked with, I realized how influential it has been in the trajectory of my own life. I drew on my circus experiences to define my own resiliency.” Her vision towards how to implement this power of resilience is one the entire circus community can benefit from. “The servant-leader shares authority, puts the needs of others first to help people perform as highly as possible. I want to share this fire within and ignite others towards wellness by using circus” (Rappaport, 2014). She is currently working on her doctorate at Tufts University in Medford, MA.

Designing circus activities, classes, and performances for individuals with disabilities is, in my opinion, one of the greatest challenges the art can face. We, the people who make up Circus Arts in America, are a rich, diverse group of people, yet relatively small and niche.  In coming to understand the allied health and education fields, I’ve re-discovered circus and the art’s unique strengths within a new context. The therapeutic process is all about understanding one’s relationship to a subject. In line with the efforts to help circus grow in this country, I challenge circus artists to think about what they are trying to express in their art, what they want to offer, and what dialogues they are creating. John-Paul Zaccarini says it well in his PhD presentation of Circoanalysis:

“We give an account to you in circus…there’s an effective loop…you applaud I do something more, you applaud more I do something again…a dialogue happens here. And the same thing happens in analysis. The account is about what I know, what I want to transmit to you as an artist (Zaccarini, 2014).”

At the end of a circus performance, the audience feels a range of emotions, and maybe even got to escape the mundaneness and challenges of daily life. By adapting circus activities to allow and encourage the participation of disadvantaged  populations, we are expanding, deepening, and imparting the art to people who would have never had the opportunity to do so. This is the way to create awareness of the art within the wider public. I hope that as circus evolves, adapts and becomes more integrated within our culture, it does more than simply offer people a momentary escape; I hope for it to change the lives of many.

Occupational Therapists 101

Infographic by tommyswanson.

Works Cited

Gilmore, Rose, Jenny Ziviani, Leanne Sakezewski, Nora Shields, and Roslyn Boyd. “A
Balancing Act: Children’s Experience of Modified Constraint- induced Movement
Therapy.” Developmental Neurorehabilitation 13.2 (2010): 88-94. 5 Oct 2009. Print

Magilo, Jill, and Carol McKinstry. “Occupational Therapy and Circus: Potential Partners in
Enhancing the Health and Well-being of Today’s Youth.” Australian Occupational
Therapy Journal 55 (2007): 287-90. Print.

Rappaport, Susan. Personal Statement (2014).

Spiegel, Jennifer Beth, Maria-Christina Breilh, Arturo Campana, Judith Marcuse, and Annalee
Yassi. “Social Circus and Health Equity: Exploring the National Social Circus Program
in Ecuador.” Arts & Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice 6 (2014): 1-10. Web.

Zaccarini, John-Paul. Circoanalysis: Circus, Therapy and Psychoanalysis. Stockholm
University (2014).

Sarah Arrigo
Sarah Arrigo is a former professional acrobat, current circus educator. She’s lived and performed in Belgium, the U.K, Canada and as part of the 2012 London Olympics. Her favorite material to train in is, undoubtably, spandex.

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