This July the Institute is working together with Galway Community Circus (GCC) on the LifeLine project and a related panel discussion on youth and mental health. Interesting hobbies and a sense of community can be key to supporting better mental wellbeing. GCC aims to provide these through their social circus and community-focussed approach, enacting their Circus for All philosophy.
But what is social circus? We talked to Tytti Vuolle and Simon Llewellyn, circus practitioners and teachers from Sorin Sirkus in Tampere, Finland. They have extensive experience running social circus groups and have been involved in international programmes aimed at developing social circus practices. As a part of these programmes they have also worked together with Galway Community Circus.
Could you tell a little bit about Sorin Sirkus and especially about the social circus work you do?
Tytti: Sorin Sirkus was established in Tampere in 1985. We currently have around 550 students between the ages 4 and 19 per week in basic circus education. We also have a performing group of around 20 young people from 15 years old to early twenties. Our social circus activity is focussed on developing and offering accessible circus training targeted at specific groups. Its purpose is to empower the participants, improve their social and motor skills, and most importantly to prevent marginalisation among these people.
What is “social circus”?
Tytti: Social circus is at its core an educational tool which enables individuals and groups to reach their goals. In “regular” circus training the goals are mostly focused on learning and mastering technical circus skills. In social circus we focus on life skills and personal development, with the circus skills you learn on the side being a bonus rather than the focus of the training.
Simon: To me, social circus is all about improving the needs of the people who are in contact with circus. It tends to target groups that are often excluded from opportunities, such as those with socio-economic limitations. There is some overlap between what we call “social circus” and what others, for example Galway Community Circus, call “community circus”. The latter tends to emphasise their strategy and goal of focussing on the area they are located in and the target of becoming incorporated in the surrounding community.
Tytti: Yes, and in contrast we are less focussed on the locality of our work, partially because many of the groups that come to us for social circus classes come through our partners such as schools and social services organisations. Due to this the participants are not necessarily from our local community. Much of our funding also comes from the same partners who support our work by funding the courses we provide for their customers. Similarly, we get some of our funding from European Union funding schemes, which tend to focus on targeting specific socio-economic groups or needs, which guides the participant streams. In addition to the partner schemes we do also organise open training courses where the participants are often locals.
Simon: Social circus is also about wanting to connect with people. The circus forms the framework for the connection, but the structures are very flexible. As an instructor you end up taking many roles. Often you are basically an unqualified youth worker and a parental figure as well as a circus practitioner.
What skills does social circus teach that can be brought along to other contexts?
Tytti: It can teach a variety of things depending on the person and their situation. We are almost like guides, guiding people and helping them find abilities and inner strengths that they never knew they had.
Simon: The people that come to social circus have a variety of goals and personal “projects” that they work on using circus as a tool. The targets may be such as improving mental health, enhancing coordination skills or mobility, or strengthening family bonds. For us, the particular “project” is often related to the partner that provides the funding and what the aims of their work are.
Tytti: It is hard to quantify the work we do and to pull exact examples of the life skills people learn. While it may be easy to show progress in someone’s juggling skills, it is harder to show that their self confidence improved by 10% and as a result they are finding it easier to navigate their everyday lives. Often the transferable skills come down to self-confidence, better understanding of the self, improved social skills, and faith in being able to overcome obstacles. For example, we had a participant that had a fear of social situations and as such were being held back from applying for jobs and education. When they joined us, tightrope walking was something they were afraid of but were determined to learn. In the end this person felt that “nothing can be scarier than tightrope walking, so I should be fine in a job interview.” That new perspective is something they were able to gain thanks to circus.
How can circus support better mental health?
Simon: I remember one of our participants saying that after Covid and all the restrictions and the lack of joint activities, “it was just nice to feel included again”. I think that is a good example of the importance of what we can do here.
Tytti: Yes, and as we mentioned before, the connection between people in the groups and with us mentors is an important part of what we do.
Simon: Circus is a great tool and environment for learning new things. Everyone has to start at the beginning with new skills, so it levels out differences in class and status. For example in school groups, it can be helpful for students to see their teacher not as an authority figure but as a peer in learning something new. Circus is also a more neutral ground because it is seen as something that is different from many other communities because it is not religious, political, or bound to ethnicity. Movement and circus skills are also something that can work as a shared language, which makes it easy to overcome those differences as well and to find common ground. These things make circus a great way to reach groups and individuals that are often not included in spaces or communities. The experience of inclusion is incredibly important for wellbeing.
Tytti: Circus forms a safe space for achievement and failure, because there are no winners and losers. You compete with yourself and improvement is viewed in relation to your own past and current skills. This makes it a safe environment for exploring and expanding your limits.
Sorin Sirkus has participated in international networks that have been working on developing the teaching of social circus methods. What has this work consisted of?
Tytti: We are one of the founding members of the Caravan Circus Network, an international youth and social circus network of circus schools from different parts of the world. It was originally started as a network of circus schools in Europe but it has expanded to the Middle-East, Africa, and Asia. The members share the common goal to use social circus as an educational tool when working with people from disadvantaged backgrounds with specific needs. The network organises training for social circus instructors under the Circus Trans Formation In Action (CTF) scheme.
Simon: Both Tytti and I have been teaching modules for the CTF training. Sorin Sirkus has hosted training for some modules over the years, and we have run modules at Galway Community Circus among others. This year we are on the 6th round of CTF training. It works as an important creative hub and a network where people with limited social circus experience can learn about what it is and how it works. We have 20–30 CTF students at a time from various participating countries. It is a good opportunity to learn the basics of social circus and to share knowledge and ideas.
Image: © Heikki Järvinen