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By Tiffany Wightman, school counsellor, Gulf Islands

Six years ago, an Australian public school circus troupe, Cirkus Surreal, visited Saltspring Island Middle School as part of their North American tour. Our students and staff were awed by their inspiring performances of aerial skills, trapeze, lyra, acrobatics, unicycling, and more. After their performance, Cirkus Surreal left behind anchor points in our gym ceiling—and the idea that such a program was possible in public schools.

Fast forward to 2020, a historic year defined by monumental challenges. Maintaining a circus program has not been easy in the age of physical distancing; however, the program has grown to become an integral part of our school culture. It’s more necessary now for our students than ever before.

In our school, circus is a classroom physical activity, an extracurricular team, and a counselling pedagogy. As the school counsellor, I use the circus equipment to work with students who would like an alternative approach to counselling goals. 

Somatic mindfulness, which focuses on the mind-body connection in the healing process, works with the theory that traumatic experiences are trapped in the body and can present as anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments. Posture and body language are part of this mind-body connection. Using circus as a non-narrative form of counselling allows students to process internalized emotional pain through movement. Learning to trust themselves, regulate their experiences, and address fears or difficult feelings (both physical and emotional) in a safe and supportive environment are all part of circus practice. It is a natural way to gain strength from the inside out, set goals, and it allows confidence to emerge over time despite the emotional and physical obstacles.

Some students who struggle with post-traumatic stress, attention-deficit/hyperactivity, oppositional defiance, and anxiety conditions, for example, may not respond to narrative processes. Moreover, in a regular class setting, many students enduring these conditions may struggle to stay within set boundaries, and feelings of failure can increase their symptoms. Students who habitually refuse rules tend to respect them when their body is engaged in the process and they need to follow rules to stay safe. Trust, attention to the activity, and a desire to be there become part of the experience. To learn the mechanics of “wrapping a drop,” students climb the fabric and wrap it in a sequence around their bodies before falling toward the floor to unwind the wrap. They may feel afraid to let go but, with encouragement, they usually do. When the drop is completed, they feel safe, proud, and thrilled at the experience. It gives a sense of joy and is a relieving contrast to their constant anxiety. 

For others, juggling can help develop their attention span or disrupt anxiety conditions, all the while working with both brain hemispheres to bring them into the present. There are emerging studies on this activity as a therapeutic modality. Circus also invites conversation about oppression, as it is known to celebrate diversity and invites out-of-the-box thinking. It is a place where critical thinking and unique self-expression are expected, and students are ready for it. 

Co-operation and collaboration are the focus at practices, inviting students who don’t like team competition to find their inner athlete, even when they may never have enjoyed sports before. We strive to eliminate gendered barriers and create an environment that is inclusive of all gender identities. We also integrate varied ages, chipping away at ageism power dynamics. Moreover, differently abled people can and do participate, finding their inner circus athlete. It comes as no surprise that circus, as a fringe sport with a foundation in celebrating diversity, creates a space where athletes of all different body types, abilities, and cultural groups can truly be valued and given a gateway not only to survive hard times, but also to thrive.

In the current pandemic, we’ve shifted our scheduling and set up to allow for safe practices. There are nine main points hanging from the gym ceiling, each safely physically distanced at eight feet apart. Through the fundraising efforts of the extracurricular team, Tsunami Circus, we have collected enough aerial apparatus, mats, props, stilts and unicycles for classes to share. With COVID-19 safety guidelines, only one group can use the circus gear for two weeks at a time. This way all classes have a rotation and get to experience the joy of circus. Our more advanced apparatus are set aside for mentors to train on in the extracurricular Tsunami Circus troupe, so no items are shared across groups. Some teachers who have found their students are particularly keen on circus have ordered their own class sets of juggling balls or spinning plates and work with our school’s circus teacher/counsellor for additional circus training.

The survival of such a program depends on making space, and that is what our school has ensured by booking the last block of each day in the gymnasium for “circus exploratory.” Dedication and collaboration from school and district leaders laid the foundation for the success of this program. 

Education and relationship building were our greatest tools in addressing the challenges associated with introducing a school circus program. For example, circus is not considered a sport, so we cannot apply for sports grants. Programs are funded entirely by fundraising. There are other issues schools must address, including organizing shared gyms to accommodate circus training, how much storage space is needed for circus equipment, and the challenge of equitably accessing space. Brave and thoughtful adult and student leaders have been the supporting voices we’ve needed to keep this program thriving.

Before COVID-19 disrupted our school year in the spring of 2020, Tsunami Circus was gearing up to do a show called “rEVOLUTION.” Students were creating performances through their own activist lenses. Our motto follows the “6 Ps of Circus”: practice, positivity, perseverance, patience, pain (the good kind), and pass it on. Collectively, these powerful words influence our culture that consciously works toward resilience, joy, and belonging. Those who graduate will continue to apply these principles, not only giving them greater resilience, but also the increased confidence to work toward social change.

About the author
Tiffany Wightman is a counsellor and teacher in Local 64 Gulf Islands, an Opt Certified Sexual Health Educator, and the circus director and coach at Saltspring Island Middle School where she has worked for 20 years.


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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine
Tag: COVID-19