Women are awesome: reflections on the 2016 American Circus Educators Conference

At the beginning of this month, I was fortunate enough to spend an inspiring five days at the American Circus Educators Conference in San Francisco. It was graciously hosted by Circus Center and AcroSports and organized and artfully and impressively realized by the team of superheroes that is also known as the ACE Board of Directors along with their amazing team of volunteers. What follows is my effort to process all of the circus goodness that’s still swirling around inside my head.

Enjoy the ride.

ACElogo-5I have three takeaways that I would like to share.

Takeaway #1: Women are awesome.

The circus arts celebrate that fact and create a space where it’s safe to explore and change perceptions—both of ourselves and of others. There’s some pretty obvious room for this to be a somewhat politicized statement, but really, it’s something that deserves acknowledgement and institutionalization.

Circus is a place that has advanced the discourse about women and ability, at least within our own wonderful ‘bubble’.

From conversations like this:

Interested observer: What are you performing?

Badass female circus artist: I’m doing a straps act.

Interested observer: Straps? But you’re a girl…

 

To conversations like this:

Interested observer: What are you performing?

Badass female circus artist: I’m doing a straps act.

Interested observer:  Oh. That’s cool.

(I borrowed this example from the speech introducing Judy Finelli’s Lifetime Achievement Award).

So many of the innovators and leaders within the realm of circus education are women. Awesome women.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to be done.

I went to a brilliant presentation on Gender (and other issues) in Circus Education by Alisan Funk that has playing over and over in my mind ever since. As happens whenever educators begin thoughtful discussions, I found myself putting my Teacher thinking hat on (specifically, my Physical Education Teacher hat).

Note: Most of the research that Alisan presented was from France. For a host of reasons, France has provided more government funding for circus arts and consequently, there has been a great deal more scholarship and study of the circus arts in France than there has been in North America (which represents a great opportunity for scholarship on this side of the Atlantic). With that in mind, the statistics that stood out most to me were the following:

Recreational circus arts participation:

80% female, 20% male

Applications to professional preparatory circus schools:

60% female, 40% male

Professional prep circus school students:

20% female, 80% male

 

Take a moment to let those numbers sink in.

It’s rather astounding.

(I want to point out that it was explicitly acknowledged that the discussion of gender, sex and gender fluidity is an important one. But, for the purposes of this discussion, we were only speaking in terms of male and female.)

Why is it that professional circus schools have so many more men as students than women when the ratio is exactly the opposite at the recreational level?

Another way of phrasing the question is why aren’t there more women applying to circus schools?

Or Why aren’t more of the women who do apply being accepted?

Different standards for men than for women?

Some sort of inherent bias in those reviewing the applicants?

Is there something about the physical and/or mental preparation of the female applicants that is different or lacking as compared to the male applicants?

There is no easy or straightforward answer to these questions and there’s certainly no single factor that contributes to the situation.

There is, however, one aspect of the equation that I would like to explore. (And I want to be clear that I don’t pretend that this represents a complete discussion or ‘answer’ by any means).

A disclosure of sorts

Before I go on, I should point out that, like we all do, I viewed the conference experience through my own unique lens, so to speak:

I went to the Conference as a presenter. What seems like forever ago, I got that newsletter from ACE asking for those interested in presenting workshops to submit their applications. I had been (relatively quietly) working away on my mission to change the way that the circus arts world thinks about, talks about and, does strength and conditioning for a while and felt like it was time to speak up. So I submitted an application. During the months that followed, I began a collaboration with Kate Surgen over at SurgePerformance.com and it became a team effort. (A post about our presentation will follow soon).

All of which is to say the physicality of circus and physical preparedness are pretty much always at the forefront of my thoughts on all things circus.

The influence of Physical Education

I used to be a high school physical education teacher.

(Another disclosure: almost my entire teaching career was in London, England, which is also not North America. But then again, who says the conversation should be limited to just North America because of where I live?).

As a physical educator, my biggest frustration with the system was the fact that physical education becomes optional several years before the end of high school/secondary school. There are a number of factors that contribute to why it becomes an optional course, but either way, it generally means the beginning of the end of an active lifestyle for many teenagers (girls and boys, actually).

Given that the goal of physical education in schools is to engender a lifelong love of physical activity (you know, since regular physical activity has such an overwhelmingly positive effect on just about every aspect of health), the fact that it becomes so easy to just give it up is problematic.

Tied to this, one of the things that I noticed was that physical education class is not always a place where young women feel comfortable or particularly interested in participating. Too many times for me to feel comfortable about it, I encountered girls doing their best to avoid participating. And it seemed to become more common as they got older.

By the time we get to the final years of secondary school, the physical education experience has often alienated way too many girls. Those who continue to participate are more likely to be the girls who also play on the sports teams or who participate in some form of athletics outside of school.

Either way, the high school experience is often a very influential one in terms of thoughts, feelings and ideas about being physically active. For those who develop negative associations with physical education (and usually, by extension, being physically active), they end up missing out on most (all?) of the physical and psychosocial developmental opportunities that physical education class presents.

Not only is it an opportunity to develop and improve physical fitness (cardiovascular health, muscular strength) and movement literacy, but it also provides the opportunity to improve self-confidence and to develop psychological resiliency (…that is, if it’s done well).

Enter adult onset circus arts.

The whole reason I was at the Educators Conference was to start/amplify the conversation about how we as a community of educators bridge the gap between the hefty inherent physical demands of circus arts and the current state of physical preparedness of the general population (and specifically, the members of the general population coming to our classes).

Once someone has found circus and the accompanying community of people who are there to support and encourage them as they explore, discover and express new possibilities for themselves, at some point we are forced to acknowledge that physics is involved.

For the majority of circus arts, you need to be strong. A balanced kind of strong that will serve as a foundation from which you can develop the more specific kind of strength that your apparatus calls for. This strength is a key prerequisite to improving performance. Along the way, that balanced and solid foundation of general strength will give your body a resiliency that will serve to reduce the probability of injury.

It may seem like a tangent, but my point here is that in order to develop the kind of strength that circus calls for, you’ve got to work out. Strength train. Lift heavy things.

For many women, the idea of ‘working out’ (particularly with ‘heavy’ weights) is not appealing. It comes with some pretty hefty cultural baggage: The high school physical education experience is too often deserving of a good portion of the blame for creating negative associations with exercise.

Of course, not all women dislike exercise. Yet, for many of those that do, we have the exercise options that are most heavily marketed as being ‘for women’, such as yoga and pilates. While both of those disciplines are fantastic—and as activities that encourage people to move when they would otherwise not be moving much, I’m all for them. If, however, the goal is to develop a solid and balanced foundation of strength for circus (which, by the way, if you’re training for circus, it should be), then strength training should be the entrée while yoga and pilates should be like side dishes.

And then there’s this whole ‘I don’t want to get bulky’ nonsense which is surprisingly pervasive.

And for many women who find the gym unappealing, the idea of taking up circus seems like an appealing alternative. It seems like a great way to be active.

The trick of it is that your silks class or trapeze class or lyra class or (insert circus discipline here) class is meant to be skills practice, not strength and conditioning. That’s something that needs to be considered separately and our current culture (both the larger physical culture on the macro level and our circus culture on the micro level) could easily do more to set women up for success from a strength and conditioning standpoint.

(All of the above are, of course, generalizations based on anecdotal evidence…which doesn’t necessarily make them less worthy of discussion and consideration, but it does mean discuss and consider with this in mind).

Takeaway #2: Circus is developing a delightfully nerdy and academic side.

I had the opportunity to sit in on the Circademics roundtable discussion. People are doing some very legitimate research about circus!

Social circus, the impact of circus on psychosocial development, applications of social circus in occupational therapy. Pedagogy and curriculum development. Circus arts therapy and the value of play. Recognizing and appreciating socioeconomic influences and gender fluidity.

The reason why real, rigorous, academic research is so important for circus is twofold: first and foremost, it adds to the overall legitimacy of circus arts practice. This means improved visibility to and perception by the general public which can only help with the growth of the sector. Secondly, since practice inspires research, research will influence practice…which means we all get better.

It’s all so wonderful and will do wonderful things to advance the practice and teaching of circus arts!

Coming back to my lens…I couldn’t help but notice that there is a dearth of research—or more appropriately, academic focus—on the physical side of circus. For example, there have been several studies conducted where researchers have done MRI studies of the shoulders, hips and spines of gymnasts and dancers. I think we as a community of teachers could benefit tremendously if similar studies were done with both recreational and professional circus artists so that we might use the research to either validate or improve our teaching practices.

Takeaway #3: The ACE Safety Recognition Program is actually the way forward.

If you were unable to attend the Conference this year, you probably didn’t get to hear the number of times Adam Wooley mentioned the Safety Program. You might also have missed the fantastic video the Beverly Sobelman put together (filmed at Le Studio) to promote the Program.

On the surface, the Safety Program is aimed at encouraging and promoting better safety and risk management strategies at circus schools. At its most fundamental level, it represents a commitment to continual attention to details and quality and dedication to ongoing improvement.

Similarly, there are surface-level benefits to participating in the Safety Program: you could get a discount on your insurance and it’s nice to have a third set of eyes, so to speak, looking at your safety practices. Going deeper, the Safety Program has the potential to build and strengthen a sense of connection among the whole circus arts community. And, not insignificantly, by having a national-level body supporting your risk management practices can and will add an increased sense of legitimacy—not only to prospective students, but to the world outside of circus.

Where I see great potential—again, through my lens—is that the Safety Program could eventually be a that we can institutionalize the importance of knowing how to recognize when our students come to us with movement dysfunctions or muscle imbalances that, in the absence of an appropriate intervention, will increase their risk of injury. The optimization of movement combined with balanced strength training is central to the way that the best athletes in the world are trained and there is no good reason not to apply the same principles to training for circus arts.

To be a circus artist—at any level—requires training like an athlete…which means a combination of skill practice and physical preparation (meaning strength and conditioning). The challenge for the circus educators community going forward will be to recognize and institutionalize the importance and necessity of helping our students with the physical preparation aspect of the injury prevention equation.

 

My experience at the Educators Conference was incredible. It was inspiring to see that there are so many extraordinary people doing extraordinary things all across the country (and beyond). It’s inspiring to see how each of these programs and people are making a difference in the lives of the people in their communities.

Circus is evolving and that’s exciting. I can’t wait for the next conference!

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1 thought on “Women are awesome: reflections on the 2016 American Circus Educators Conference

  1. Deborah G Peltz Reply

    Anything that starts with “Women are awesome” gets me right away. But I wanted to thank you for your thoughts about the gender issues that I think apply to many athletic activities. I grew up before there was Title IX so many of these issues weren’t even raised. But I think that building strength and mobility is important for everyone regardless of age or gender and helps contribute to awareness and positive body image and a sense of competence.

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