Fighting Gravity: Circus Arts for Adolescents

by Jackie Davis
Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Here at Pine Hill, circus-related activities are taught playfully in the elementary grades: tumbling on the mats as monkeys and bears, games using circus imagery, tossing scarves in the air and walking backwards on a balance beam.

It is not until the onset of puberty, however, that students are fully introduced to the challenges of more demanding skills and to the spotlight of the big performances. It is at this time, when the child’s body and mind are undergoing vast changes, that the child is likely to experience both literal and metaphorical struggles with balance, coordination, self-control, and self-knowing. It is at this time therefore that the child may experience the greatest range of benefits which the circus has to offer.

Circus arts meet the adolescent in several ways that are unique to this age group and which help the young teenager grapple with the sudden and powerful changes going on within him. One dramatic change is in the teen’s relationship to gravity. Physiologically at this time, the child’s bones are going through ossification (hardening), their growth plates are closing, and the result is that they experience themselves as being more dense and heavy. They are caught between their memory of levity and their new experience of gravity.

In learning handstands and cartwheels, the child learns to locate her new center of gravity. Rolling globes and unicycles further define this center and help her carry her new weight with proper posture. By working with human pyramids, she learns not only to support herself but to support the weight of her neighbors as well. The child who is fearful and who shies from risk can experience bravery by climbing a pyramid or by learning to be responsible for his classmate; the fearless type who seems impervious to risk must learn to be considerate and careful of others.

The tightwire offers possibilities for mastering balance, both in the literal and figurative meaning. Middle schoolers find this apparatus quite challenging and will often avoid it for more extroverted activities. It has to do with overcoming fear and with accepting that balance itself is never stable. Rudi Ballreich writes in the Waldorf publication Erziehungskunst (Oct.’95): “Balance is not a ready-made result that we can hold on to. Balance means: I have to find it every time anew. Practicing balancing … is like an ancient original picture of human life: we are challenged to find the middle at every moment and at every moment we have to establish the balance. This unstable, moving energy comes from our inner center, our “I”. This center develops through this balancing activity.”

Juggling in its deeper sense is much more than coordinating the eyes and the hands. Ballreich writes that juggling is the balance between holding on and letting go, and that only through skill can gravity and lightness be brought into proper relation.

During puberty, children experience a strong desire for adventure. Many of the ills of today’s youth — smoking, drug experimentation, reckless driving, crimes and delinquency — can be attributed to a misdirected need for thrills. Ballreich points out that the pedagogical meaning of the circus lies in “adventure pedagogy.” The circus is one place where teens experience real and palpable risks in a held and socially condoned environment.

Acting out is a mode of thrill-seeking that can be met by clowning. Today’s youth meet disapproval from society by dying their hair green and by wearing comically baggy pants, yet this combination on stage gets laughter and applause and provides the attention they crave. For centuries, cultures around the world have recognized the human need for officially approved fooling by holding festivals where the norm is ruptured. The circus can be a safe channel for children to redirect their disruptive behaviors in healthier ways.

The inherent inclusiveness of a school circus offers opportunities for involvement to any student who wishes to participate. If a child is challenged by a given activity, he is sure to have successful experiences in other areas.

The circus is available to everyone regard-less of gender, size, age, physical skill, fitness, athletic ability, or previous movement experience. As an archetype, the circus demands one’s personal best, one’s concentration and poise, and in return it promises to transform the ordinary into the extra-ordinary. It’s a place where each person counts, where the quest for balance can begin, and where the center between gravity and levity can be found.

Jackie Davis is a movement educator at the Pine Hill School in Wilton, NH. She is the director of: the Hilltop Circus, for 7th and 8th graders at the school; The Flying Gravity Circus, an extra-curricular circus for high school youth; and, the Silver Lining Circus Camp, a summer program.

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