[This article was published in CircusMagazine #40 – September 2014]
[Author: Brecht Hermans – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
Imagine. A society in which people meet one another. Where people work together, despite their personal differences. In social circus it happens. Does circus hold the keys to a successful multicultural society? Or is that too idealistic? Listen – Idealism is permitted.
First some terminology. The label ‘social circus’ makes almost everyone shudder. It’s a bubble term, a vague generalisation for the various concrete actions taking place on a local level. And it quickly brings with it politically incorrect terms like immigrant, handicapped and marginal, and the confusion over what we may and may not say. In all our sensitivity we don’t want to offend anyone. Forget it! In social circus those terms are irrelevant. Social circus isn’t about labels, it is about people.
Circus for everyone
Social circus is seen as a form of leisure for children, young people and adults in which circus is used as a tool to give socially vulnerable people some positive reenforcement. What’s important is that one word: circus as a tool. Circus is not the end in itself, and there are no expectations of an artistic result. The kids are not being prepped for a professional circus career. Circus is used in the here and now to reach people that our society might otherwise leave by the wayside.
The way in which social circus functions varies from organisation to organisation, from specific group to specific group, and from country to country. There are two major tendencies. One can work for a specifically targeted group or one can work inclusively. If you start a course for the visually impaired or if you start up a project with children in a difficult neighbourhood, then that is the targeted approach. Working inclusively implies that specific groups people are taken up in the larger organisation. The lessons are open to everyone. With the emphasis on everyone.
Handi-cirque and community circus
We could divide the target groups of social circus into two categories. A first group is made up of people who are physically or mentally challenged. In french, this work is referred to as handi-cirque. In flemish we are less inclined to use this term, perhaps because the media also tends to avoid the term “handicapped”. At any rate, the teachers will contend that the difference between working in handi-circus and regular circus is minimal. The teacher must adapt, and choose the circus techniques which are possible, and fit the physical or mental abilities of the student. But once that has been determined, the lessons are pretty much similar to normal circus lessons. With the added plus that physically and mentally challenged students are usually very motivated and disciplined.
A second category of social circus is one which targets people who for one reason or another are at risk of being excluded from society. In this context one often speaks of community circus. Social cohesion via the circus. We think immediately of circus with immigrant children, but the targeted group can also extend to the elderly or the prison population. Circus as a means of leading these people back to a place in society, with the bolstering up of their self-image as a first step.
Children and young people who come from a difficult home situation take an important place in the social circus. It isn’t easy to involve this group in society, but circus seems to offer a key which can open quite a few doors. But it’s not an easy job. Getting the kids and young people involved in the circus school on a regular basis is already an enormous challenge for the social circus. The following scenario is a common one: the circus organisation starts a workshop in a problem neighbourhood, the children from that neighbourhood are incredibly enthusiastic and one or two of them find their way later to the weekly circus lessons. But after a few weeks they no longer show up. Why? Not because they don’t enjoy it. But perhaps because they are not used to any kind of structured hobby. Or because they find no support at home. Or because they would rather hang out on the street than spend time in a milieu of white middle-class kids. Because in circus as well, in spite of its extreme accessibility, certain social obstacles still manage to withstand.
But, the energy hasn’t been wasted, even if the young person doesn’t show up again after only a few lessons. Vincent Wauters, director of the Ecole de Cirque de Bruxelles, looks at it this way: “If a child comes a few times and then disappears off the radar, that is not a failure. As long as they were present, you gave them something, and that is not lost. Perhaps it was only a tiny bit, but they take that experience with them, and are richer for it.”
Why Circus Works
Circus has some qualities which make it an incredibly appropriate tool for social work. But is circus then a miracle cure? In this everyone agrees: no. Other disciplines are also applicable. Music, sport or theatre can be equally stimulating for personal and social growth. Still, circus has some specific qualities that give it an advantage over other disciplines. In his doctorate Why Circus Works, the brit Reg Bolton tries to get a handle on these qualities with the help of…a hand.
For Bolton, the palm of the hand stands for laughter and joy. Circus is fun. Without pleasure you don’t get it. The index finger stands for the ego, self-image, the individual. Through circus you get to know your own body, you work on power, agility, and speed. You build up your self-confidence. Bolton then sees the powerful middle finger as standing for risk, adventure, and courage. You develop bravery, but also get hooked on being a winner, and on success. Young people learn that the positive kick they get from circus can be even stronger than the one which is chemically induced, even better than drugs.
But it goes beyond the individual: the ring-finger stands for trust, working together and sharing. People meet one another, learn to get along with each others differences and build up respect for one another. In circus, words are not even necessary to this process, and that makes it especially suitable for people who don’t speak the language. Finally there is the pinky; the dream and the fantasy. Circus teases creativity, and it is multi-disciplined. Any talent can find a place under the umbrella of circus. Those who cannot juggle are perhaps very strong in trapeze. But even someone who is a good whistler can find a place for their talent in the circus. All of this does not necessarily come easily, and this brings Bolton to the thumb: symbol for the hard work and discipline required. The advantage of circus is that you can quickly come to a visible result, and that you then have to train and train to improve that result.
From the individual to the group to society: circus is good for people. It is a means to strengthen oneself, but also to grow stronger as a group. That’s what gives it such potential as a social tool.
Social and yet artistic?
Usually there is less importance placed on the artistic result which comes out of a social circus project, but there are some exceptions:
-Cirque Inextremiste: a guest held in high esteem by all the circus festivals the past years. This French group made the piece ‘Extrêmités’, in which three acrobats are constantly searching for balance. One of the three, Rémi Lecocq, is in a wheelchair. But that especially contributes to the comedy of the piece, which is more about friendship and working together than about what the one guy in the wheelchair is (still) capable of doing.
-La Bande de Z’OuFs: The piece ‘Complicités’ was made in 2011 in the Espace Catastrophe in Brussels. It included 18 artists, 11 of whom were mentally challenged. At the same time brutal and poetic, the creative process was thoroughly documented and later resulted in a beautiful book which was published about the project.
-Circo de Los Muchachos: In 1956 the Spanish priest Jesus Silva founded the town of Benposta, whose population consisted entirely of poor and neglected children, with their own local government. Circo de Los Muchachos was born out of this social experiment, with an overwhelming circus show that toured throughout Europe and the Americas for decades. The highpoint of the show was a pyramid of Harlequins, with the strongest boys on the bottom and a small child at the top.
European Social Circus trainer
One of the most vital roles in the social circus is that of the trainer. A good social circus trainer is of inestimable value, faced with an enormous challenge. He or she must not only master several circus techniques, but must also be a good pedagogue, able to stand his or her ground in a group, while at the same time giving special attention to the weakest members within that group. One needs a huge dose of empathy and understanding in approaching each specific child. And all of this in the midst of constantly unexpected situations which arise and crises waiting to erupt. They won’t say it quickly of themselves, but a good circus pedagogue is a worker of minor miracles. Unfortunately this is a fact that often goes unnoticed. The Flemish government, for example, shows little interest in supporting the social circus. But more about that later.
One fanatic supporter of social circus is the European Union. This EU has long recognized the value of lifelong learning. Continuing education keeps one sharp, and is good for one’s self-confidence and consciousness. For young and old. And here we are not only talking about learning in school, but extra-curricular activities like sport, music or…circus. In the ‘informal studies’, the label which has been given to this branch of education, you learn things you don’t learn in school. It is for this reason that Europe finds the extra-curricular training so important.
And out of this support from the European Community also rose the organisation Caravan, which brings twelve youth and social circus schools from twelve different countries together. And for the past two years, under the auspices of Caravan, the Circus Trans Formation project continues to develop a single method for circus pedagogues. Thanks to this project, a manual for trainers in social circus now exists. It is the intention to use this manual as basis for a training program specifically geared towards the education of social circus trainers on a European level. Evidence that Europe believes in and supports the social circus. On a smaller scale, one can follow a course to become a social circus trainer at the Ecole de Cirque de Bruxelles. One can specialize in pedagogy, social circus, and handi-circus. In the Netherlands a similar course has been started up by Circus Elleboog, in which any Flemish students interested in the program are welcome.
The political choice
The Flemish government has yet to recognize work in the social circus. At any rate, in the circus decree social circus has no specific place. An organization in search of subsidies is better advised to go to their local city and provincial governments (for as long as the means at these levels still exist). At these levels the amount of support they may receive is very dependent of the goodwill of local politicians. Do they or do they not recognize the value of social circus? And do they judge by the end-result, (which is not the main focus of social circus), or can they be convinced by the (less visible) development of the individual and the building up of his or her sense of group and community? The answer to these questions varies, depending on the local government in question. At any rate, Brussels stands out. In this city the working of social circus is recognized, because circus schools like Zonder Handen and the Ecole de Cirque have firmly implanted themselves in immigrant neighborhoods. In Brussels, integration is an acute problem, so organizations active in this terrain are inclined to get noticed, and supported, more quickly. In Flemish cities this is less the case. The Leuvense Cirkus in Beweging does not receive extra support from the city or province for her social work.
But how to make apparent the importance of social circus? Even aside from the question of subsidies this is an interesting question. How do you convince people who themselves are not active in social circus of its value? How do you convince the community? The tax-payers? Because finally it is they who decide if they find this work important or not. If they want to support it or not. Do people want to invest in the self-development of young people with problems? Is it important for a society to stimulate the possibilities for people to come together? Social circus is the circus of those with a modest desire to make the world a better place. Of those who believe in an inclusive society. Idealism, as a political choice.
Political choices are seldom made without taking into account the financial aspects of that choice. So it may be expedient to point out that a study made at the university of Tampere in Finland shows that people who are shut out of society cost that same society an awful lot of money. Those who may wish to save on welfare, should consider investing in people. An active citizen generates more revenue than someone who finds no place in the bigger picture. Without even going into his or her personal tragedy. The European Union seems to have realised this. Now just waiting for her subjects to realise the same.
Circus as an Example
Social circus is a small, local story. Someone organises something, somewhere on the edge of society. He reaches out a hand to a few others, who desperately need that hand. Something happens. An individual receives a chance, perhaps to blossom. And this could be a single stone in a larger game of dominos that leads to a warmer society. In this way social circus reaches beyond local issues and becomes an example on a global scale.
-Cirque du Monde: largest organisation for social circus in the world, it is the humanitarian arm of Cirque du Soleil. Whether or not this is an attempt to address an image problem, the fact is that Cirque du Monde has started up more than 80 projects world-wide. Social educative work is done, as well as handing down Cirque du Soleil expertise in instructor training programs.
-Cirque Elleboog, Amsterdam: one of the oldest social circus organizations. Started in 1945, with the specific goal of keeping problematic youth off of the streets. In the meantime the organisation has put down roots in one of the neighborhoods in Amsterdam with many children from the lower classes. Elleboog organises activities for these children, but also for people with limitations, mistreated women and homeless young people.
-Academic research in social circus is fledgling, but much work has already been done by the Belfast Community Circus School in Northern Ireland and Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde in Paris. In Finland there is a large-scale research program within the Social Circus Project (2009-2011) and the Effective Circus Project (2011-2014) at the Sorin Circus and the University of Tampere.
-Other lovely social circus projects outside of Belgium include the Mobile Mini Circus for Children in Afghanistan, that uses circus to help children just be children in a country that has been war-torn for decades, and the Fekat Circus in Ethiopia, that since 2004 works with street children. By now many of the original members of the group have grown up to take their place in the organization of the circus.
Organizations in Flanders
A few of the most important organizations for social circus in Flanders.
Cirkus in Beweging (Leuven): first circus school in Flanders, started in 1993. Provided circus material for the First Palestinian Circus, that aims to lift the consciousness of Palestinian youth through circus. In their own country, they organize courses for seniors, prisoners, immigrant youth and people with limited visual and mental capacities.
Circus Zonder Handen (Brussels): Circus Zonder Handen is a dutch-speaking circus school in Brussels, who have purposely located their different working spaces in various problem neighborhoods. From this base the school works inclusively, in that the circus lessons are open to everyone in the neighborhood.
Ell Circo d’ell Fuego (Antwerp): began as a collective of seven circus artists, but has grown into a high caliber rock-and-roll circus school. The doors are open for kids from the neighborhood, (the extremely multi-cultural Antwerp-Noord) and the school pushes them to throw themselves at circus like true lions, while never losing their eye for artistic quality. Various talent has already emerged out of Ell Circo d’ell Fuego and taken its place in the professional circus scene.
Circusplaneet (Gent): Circusplaneet works on three different levels. It aims to promote and diffuse circus as an art-form, it offers circus lessons for children, youths and adults, and would like to make the world a bit better place through social neighbourhood projects. Thanks to the support of the province of East Flanders, founding member Steven Desanghere is specifically employed as a social circus worker.
Woesh (Brugge): “Circus uit de maat” (off-beat circus) is the slogan of Woesh, because of a predilection for outsiders. The circus school profiles itself as a social organisation and has realised several beautiful projects within its field. One of those projects is Cirque Magique in Veurne, where Woesh and the social arts organization Klein Verhaal, (Little Story) got together with film-maker Lisa Tahon and the local people to make a circus film. This project was supported by the Province of West-Flanders.