Circus as a means, not as a goal. That – in a nutshell – is the concept behind social circus. Social circus is a powerful tool when applied to working with some of the most vulnerable, which explains its continuing growth within that sector. But professionalization and more funding is necessary, and there are a lot of pitfalls. As part of the Conference on Social Circus which was organised by Circuscentrum, Woesh and Cirque Plus in October of 2017, Steven Desanghere, an expert in the field, has written down some of his most personal thoughts on the subject.
[This article was published in CircusMagazine #53 – December 2017]
[Author: Steven Desanghere – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
At the end of the last century, I was bitten by the circus virus. I was already in my mid-twenties, and was introduced to the circus school Circusplaneet in Ghent by some friends of mine. In those days its members were a fairly motley bunch, most of whom just wanted to juggle. The freshly shaven acrobats only drifted in a bit later in the story. We were constantly exchanging tricks and techniques and basically having a blast. For me, working on different circus techniques, with all the effort, dedication, teamwork and tiny successes which came with it, really had a big impact on my life. At some point someone asked me to help with some activities and workshops, and a while thereafter I started giving circus lessons on a regular basis. Since then I’ve gone on to lead all kinds of workshops for circus trainers, in Belgium and abroad.
What I most enjoy is the energy inherent in giving workshops and projects outside of the circus school. Taking a van full of stuff to a street fair, a gathering of scouts, a school, a playground or an institution, and really firing up the place. I can’t begin to count all of the wonderful people I’ve met or relationships which have come out of those experiences. — Circus works, in depth and in breadth. Circus is one of those delightful techniques which allow you to give free rein to your Inner Child, to forget all the ‘normal’ social conventions, and admire, play with, move, challenge and touch one another. Circus is liberating and in the right setting it can offer a lot of pleasure, a chance to meet others and a big boost to one’s self-worth. Those are things that can be severely missing for someone living on the edge of society.
Rock ’n’ Roll
Thanks to the circus I have had the privilege of working very intensely with people on those edges of society. Children with physical and mental challenges, refugees, prisoners, people suffering from dementia, children in special institutions or trapped in poverty… Social circus is flourishing everywhere, in Flanders and far beyond. And it’s not just the particular target groups or circus schools that are taking notice of the impact and potential of social circus, but also the welfare services, the cultural sector, academics and the government. At the same time many of the social circus projects still proceed à l’improviste, with a few charismatic leaders taking the initiative and just going for it. Veritable rock ’n’ roll. Sometimes with enormous success, but just as often without.
In order to evaluate where social circus is at this moment in Flanders, and explore where the possibility for growth may lie, the Circuscentrum, Woesh and Cirque Plus organised a conference day on October 24, 2017. There were a lot of important people to be seen in Brugge: teachers and coordinators from a range of circus schools throughout Flanders, Brussels and the Netherlands, social workers, professionals from diverse cultural centres, the social sector and the government.
The conference began with a fascinating panel debate between different pioneers from the social circus. It was soon clear that the discipline is one with many forms, manners of working and goals, while at the same time sharing many of the same needs. The biggest part of the day’s meeting involved all those attending, who had the chance at different discussion tables to talk about the present needs and obstacles, and brainstorm about different possibilities for supporting one another.
Step by Step
At Circus Zonder Handen (‘Circus without hands’, a circus school in Brussels) it is their mission statement to work with socially vulnerable children and youth; everything they offer is aimed at that group. Many other circus schools translate social circus into working in project formats with particular target groups, usually ‘side by side’ with other social workers, who bring their expertise, and often more funding to the project. But in almost every project it’s a guarantee that the same needs and desires will arise: the need for more qualified social-circus trainers, more specific course-work, better profiling towards the outside world, development of a method for measuring the impact a project might have, more academic research, bringing more focus to the pedagogical and artistic vision, a vernacular particular to social circus, … The need for structural support continues to grow. A bit of professionalisation, step by step towards the recognition of social circus as a discipline in itself.
Participants in the conference arrived with lots of ideas on how to help one another, and the role that Circuscentrum could play in all of this. It was clear that more communication between the different schools would be a start. Much can be learned from the sharing of each other’s look on things, approaches and practice, both in success and in failure. Reluctance to take on social circus work can be remedied by getting more supervisors and coaches into the field, by making good agreements with motivated partners in the social sector, by creating and adapting pedagogy specialised to particular target groups, and by increasing the availability of diverse coaching-training programs. There is also a huge pool of experience within the broader social-artistic sector, that often gets overlooked by the social circus world. More awareness of the power of social circus among authorities on all levels, the social sector and cultural centres is necessary. This could be achieved with publications, catchy videos, gripping testimonies across the media outlets, etc.
Professionalisation: ok, but not at the expense of…
The past years I have had the chance to get to know a plethora of social circus initiatives in Belgium and beyond. Professionalisation and more funding has provided many of these initiatives the possibility to take root and establish themselves, but in some cases it’s been proven to be a curse. If the right kind of preparatory work is not included, there are a lot of pitfalls in starting up a social circus initiative for vulnerable individuals and groups in the social fabric. Can we for example continue to provide a safe space for all participants and continue to work towards the needs of each individual, without getting stuck in working spaces that are too small, with groups that are instable, or just too large, with inadequate materials, bad time arrangements or too much importance placed on the end-result? Can we maintain respect for the participants and their needs? Are the coaches and trainers aware enough of their own privileged backgrounds, and are they not abetting in spite of themselves a further exclusion and stigmatising of the target group with which they are working? Does the social circus project have the necessary critical awareness to avoid being used by the authorities as a showpiece to cover up certain social abuses?
An example: not only do refugees need a fun circus project, but also housing, income, chances to integrate, respect, etc. Can we also make sure that our circus pedagogy survives? Putting out some circus materials in a noisy hall with fifty children and one supervisor is not social circus, but at best glorified child-sitting. Do we dare go to the authorities, not only with our successes but also with our failures and specific challenges, to make clear that a circus project with a limited number of participants needs a lot of time and resources to succeed? And last but not least: how open are those in our circus schools to the richness of diversity, not only in social circus projects, but to the general working of the atelier? Are we willing to make our regular lessons, our volunteer work and our teaching team more representative of that diversity?
Social circus is here to stay, and with a good structure, openness to learn, and enough resources, it can grow to be valuable and respected amongst its peers. A place where the fringes of society can come together and celebrate the things that make them different, free from social conventions and sterile ‘decency’. Where play, creativity and wonder are the things that lead us. Because that’s what circus is, isn’t it? So let’s get to work!