Written by: Dan Roberts (Founder and Executive Director of Red Nose Foundation)
Social Circus refers to a growing movement around the world towards the use of circus arts as a medium for social justice or social good. Using alternative pedagogical tools to work with youth from marginalized communities, living in social or personal risk.
In practice, social circus helps build personal skills that children living in slum communities need to succeed against the many different challenges that await them. From simple benefits like increased self esteem and stronger understanding of teamwork, to more complicated ideas of learning skills, perseverance and the importance of respect and equality; social circus passes on these important lessons to children and young adults through tangible, hands on, experience based learning.
When a child is first engaged to learn basic circus skills, they’re excited to try, but terrified to fail. They often believe that if they try once and don’t succeed, they’ll never be able to accomplish the task. The job of the social circus instructor is to encourage and safely guide the child along the path of learning each new skill. Carefully crafted curriculum is used to ensure that the children are given the opportunity to succeed at early steps, before difficult elements are introduced. Each success empowers the child to confront the next step with more vigor and less fear, propelling the child into a state of ferocious curiosity, letting go of their inhibitions and learning that while each progressive step requires more concentration and an increased effort to learn, anything is possible with clear instructions, a little patience and a lot of courage.
With social circus, children are taught that their successes are shared celebrations and their failures are shared lessons. When children are learning acrobatics, if the pyramid falls, the blame doesn’t lay with the child on top who climbed with the wrong technique, or with the child on the bottom who wasn’t strong enough to hold them up. In fact, they both own the failure. They are taught to communicate about what didn’t work, and why. It is the responsibility of each partner to be better where their partner lacks, catch their partner when they are falling and stand strong together in the face of adversity. The experience of depending and being depended on by your partner shines a new light on responsibility and community.
Performance is a very important part of social circus, whether a short demonstration in front of a small class or a full length show with hundreds of audience members. The children spend days, weeks or sometimes months working on certain tricks or acts. They learn that the performance they have prepared is a gift in which they have the honor of presenting to their audiences. The level of effort they’ve put into the presentation is equated to the value of the gift, and they are proud to give such valuable gifts to their communities. When they stand on stage in front of a crowd, execute the skill they’ve been practicing, and throw their hands up in the air to shout, “tada!” while the audience claps and cheers; their understanding of self worth and hard work is changed forever. The revelation that the children experience on stage; that they are worth something more than their outfit, more than the size of their house or the quantity of their possessions, is indeed an invaluable prize in and of itself.
The lessons taught in the social circus classroom are learned through hands on, actual experiences. This way of learning gives a deep and long lasting impression. It is for all of these reasons that Red Nose teaches social circus as the introductory program for all students who wish to join our organization. Every child, from our kindergarten kids up through our young adults in the vocational program take at least one social circus class each week, because we believe that the lessons learned in this classroom build the foundation to help them succeed at anything they want to accomplish.